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Jan/Feb 2018 Reviews & Interviews

The Good People

The Good People.
Hannah Kent.
Picador, Pan Macmillan. 2017. 386 pp.
ISBN 978 1 760 550 868.

Review by Ann Skea


"It is out of respect that I call them the Good People, for they do not like to be thinking of themselves as bad craturs." "...'tis true that they sometimes cause mischief, and that is why people come to me... I have the knowledge and the cure if the fairies do be striking you or taking the profit out of your animals or crops, or the power out of your legs."

Buy now from Amazon! Nóra Roche is the local "handy woman." She helps women in childbirth. She leads the keening and knows how to release the soul of the newly dead. And she also has "the knowledge," passed on to her by "Mad Maggie," and can use herbs and charms to deal with the fairies.

In 1825, in the remote Irish village where the newly widowed Nóra lives and cares for four-year-old grandson, Micheál, superstition is deeply embedded in the lives of the people. The sudden death of Nóra's husband, Martin, at the crossroads where the unbaptised are buried, surrounded by inauspicious omens, causes consternation. The mysterious spastic condition of her grandson, too, is the subject of suspicion. And when the doctor and the priest fail to cure Micheál, it is clear to Nance Roche that the real Micheál, who had been a beautiful healthy child until the age of two, has been stolen by the fairies, a fairy child left in his place.

The new priest of the village is determined to stamp out the ungodly practices of his parishioners. He opposes all Nance does, and when Micheál dies during one of her fairy-banishing rituals, the police and the courts become involved.

A young girl, Mary, who has been employed by Nóra to help care for Micheál, becomes involved in all this, and she, too, is accused of assisting in Micheál's death.

The core of the book, however, is not the trial for murder, but the lives of the villagers, the strength of their superstitious beliefs, and the way in which these influence all their actions. All of Nance's charms and rituals are done to oppose evil, to protect and heal, and to ensure health and survival. The villagers believe in this and believe in her powers, often with good reason, since her herbal remedies effect cures. The tension between religion and folk-superstition, justice and judgement—all is part of the story, and all is demonstrated through the lives of Hannah Kent's characters.

As the quotation below (chosen at random from many others) shows, Kent writes beautifully about the Irish land and climate:

December arrived and bled the days of sunlight, while the nights grew bitter, wind-rattled. The water that pooled outside beneath the doorstep was tight with ice by morning and starlings lit upon the thatched roofs of the valley, circling the smoking chimney holes for warmth.

She is good, too, at suggesting the suspicions and the half-hidden secrets and gossip that pervade the lives of the village people. And she has clearly done a great deal of research about Ireland in the 1820s; about folk-lore, herbal lore, folk-beliefs; and about the customs and yearly events and celebrations which shaped village life. The trouble, for me, is that every bit of research seems to have been written into the story. Sometimes this adds interest, but at other times, as in the Sahmain (Halloween—All Souls' Night) scaring of Nóra, I found it overly contrived.

The use of accents on names (Micheál, Nóra, Áine, Seán, Éilís)—which made me stop and wonder about their pronunciation each time I met them—the often untranslated Irish words and phrases dotted into the text, the archaic language—all of this began to grate. It became predictable that yet another disaster would occur and be put down to magic. And I found the extent and depth of the villagers' belief in folk-superstitions overdone and hard to credit. My grandmother (born in the late 1890s) was, like Nóra, early widowed, and she lived in a small, gossipy, country village, She followed some superstitious practices and knew of a woman in the next village who, reputedly, had the magical power to stop horses outside her house and had broken a man's arm by witchcraft. None of these things governed her life in the way the superstitions of Hannah Kent's villagers govern theirs. Perhaps it was different 80 years earlier and in an Irish Catholic community.

From the start, too, Nóra's hiring of a girl to help her care for her grandson bothered me. Nóra had a small, poorly furnished, thatched cottage (presumably rented like most of the houses in the village), a few chickens, and one cow. She sold butter and eggs when she could, and her husband had been employed to dig ditches. Would a recently widowed woman, in winter when crops are scarce, fields bare, and cows give less milk, have even considered hiring help? Could she have afforded to do so?

These caveats aside, The Good People is well written, has many tense and exciting moments, and will delight readers who love stories full of Irish characters, fairies, and magic.

 

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