Hannah Kent’s second book follows in the footsteps of her first book, Burial Rites, where the story plays out against a background that is harsh, grey, cold and unforgiving. While Burial Rites is set in Iceland, The Good People has the Irish winter of 1825/1826 as its background. Kent’s ability to capture a physical sensation of cold and deprivation in her writing is to be admired.
This is a book about the complexity of myth and superstition and the way in which it merges with traditional religious belief. The story, situated in an Irish rural village of the early nineteenth century, centres on three women: Nόra, newly widowed and the guardian of her deceased daughter’s four-year-old child, Micheál; Nance, the village wise woman; and Mary, a fourteen-year-old girl hired by Nόra to help her with Micheál.
Micheál is disabled, though, if we are to believe Nόra, he began life as well and healthy as any other child. Although she fears that her daughter and son-in-law may have failed to care for him and feed him properly, Nance strongly believes that he is a changeling: the real Micheál has been taken by the fairies or the good people.
The story unwinds against a background where a depressing Irish winter competes only with ignorance, herbal remedies and an unbelievable array of concoctions to ward off harm and/or bring luck. Traditional religious practices may be part of every-day life for these people, but as the new priest soon realizes (much to his chagrin) his flock is not only Christian but also pagan.
The Good People should appeal to most readers but especially to those who have experienced Irish superstitions and folk lore at first hand. It is a book that once commenced cannot be put down.
Photo of Hannah Kent from The Australian