The Good People by Hannah Kent is a powerful second novel from a writer whose debut was outstanding. It is a tale of rural people in a poor community where superstition and folklore become entangled with one woman’s grief, with tragic results. Conflicting systems of thought come into play – folklore, religion, medicine and legal – and fail to make sense of what happens to Nóra Leahy. The power of the story lies not in black versus white, or logic and education versus peasant superstition, it lies in its characters.
County Kerry, Ireland, 1826. An isolated village, where gossip goes around and around, where people survive on milk and potatoes and burn turf on the fire. A place where petty grievances are not forgotten, there is no money to pay the doctor, but there are still random acts of kindness. In such a poor community, what happens when the unthinkable happens, where the doctor and priest have no explanation or solution?
The Good People is based on true events, a court case which did happen. In the same year in which her daughter died, Nóra’s husband drops dead in the field leaving her alone to care for her four-year-old grandson Micheál. He cannot walk or speak and neither the doctor nor the priest can offer hope. So Nóra keeps him hidden from the village gossips in the fear that his deformities may be an indication of fairy interference. Unable to cope alone, Nóra employs 14-year-old Mary to milk the cow and fetch the water, and principally to care for Micheál. Soon Mary hears the whispers at the well, that the unnatural child of Nóra Leahy is to blame for the poor harvest, the hens not laying, the thin milk. So Nóra asks Nance Roche for help. Nance is the wise woman of the valley, she knows the plants, the cures, and she talks to the Good People… the fairies.
When Nance suggests the screaming, fitting, feeble child is not really Micheál but a changeling left in his place by the fairies, the three women become embroiled in cures to banish ‘the fairy’. The darkness of the cures attempted on a disabled and sick child is disturbing and, ultimately tragic. The events unfold slowly through the stories of Nóra, Mary and Nance. The writing is beautiful and every page is steeped in the folklore of rural Ireland, this bleak village where poor people live at the edge of survival. It is impossible not to connect with the three women, each so different, while at the time seeing the inevitability of what is to come.
A little historical context. In 1801 the Act of Union was enacted which ended a separate parliament in Dublin with government switching to Westminster. In 1823 in Ireland, Daniel O’Connell began to set up Catholic associations around the country, seeking a repeal of the Act of Union. In 1826 an ‘old woman of very advance age’ known as Anne/Nance Roche was indicted for the wilful murder of Michael Kelliher/Leahy at the summer Tralee assizes in Co. Kerry.
A compelling read.
The Good People is Hannah Kent’s second novel. Read my review of her debut, Burial Rites.
Visit Hannah Kent’s website here.
‘The Good People’ by Hannah Kent [UK: Picador] Buy at Amazon
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