My first read of 2017 was a book I have been excited about reading for a long time. Hannah Kent’s second novel, The Good People, is due to be published next month, and I was delighted to receive a proof copy as I couldn’t wait to read it having adored Hannah’s debut novel Burial Rites, which has become one of my all time favourites. So needless to say, I had high expectations for this one and The Good People did not disappoint.
“Tis something else this time,’ they would say, extending a twisted foot or breathing through a congested lung. “Tis the evil eye,’ they said. “Tis the Good People.”
Inspired by true events from the time, The Good People is a story set in County Kerry, in nineteenth century Ireland. It begins with Nora Leahy, a woman who having only recently lost her daughter is dealt a further blow when her husband’s body is returned to her. And in the midst of her grief she has other concerns on her mind, concerns regarding the care and wellbeing of Micheal, her grandson. Micheal is four years old but it is evident he has a disability, one which means he is unable to walk or speak as other children his age can. And at a time when folklore and rituals were prevalent and advances in medical science were not, Nora is left mistrustful of the neighbours that rally round her in the wake of her husband’s death. She is afraid for Micheal, choosing to hide him away to avoid the rumours that may surround him from neighbours afraid of his disability. But as Nora begins to struggle to care for her grandson and run the household alone, she hires a teenage maid, Mary, to help. Together, as Mary and Nora continue to hear whispers surrounding the young boy from those around them, they decide to seek out the only person in the valley they know who can help – Nance Roche, a local healer.
‘I see him now and I wonder. I wonder at what she said. I see him and I know he’s my son, but I don’t recognise him at all.’
As the story develops we see how the lives of these three women become drawn together in their efforts to cure Micheal, to rid his body of whatever has possessed it, and to return the healthy, happy grandson Nora remembers so fondly. It was both fascinating and surprising to learn about the superstitions and attitudes present at this time, and the way they dominated daily life. Regular, natural occurrences such as injury, illness, or even a disappointing crop yield were considered signs of something far bigger, some kind of otherworldly interference. It was a time of great belief and ritual which surrounds the rural communities and influences their daily routines as they try to make sense of the events around them, and to protect themselves. And whilst they may be wary of her, the neighbours turn to Nance for help, convinced that she is able to communicate with ‘The Good People’, to get them to return what has been taken. There were some particularly powerful, harrowing moments along the way as we see the reaction the local people had towards Micheal, and how desperately these women wanted to make him well, and finding few answers to their needs. From the opening pages I was gripped, and once again enthralled by Hannah Kent’s writing. The story is beautifully written and rich in historical detail. The landscape is vividly portrayed along with the intricacies of rural life – from the world of folklore through to Nance’s herbal remedies and other aspects of daily life. There is a wonderful sense of time and place, with historical fact and traditional language woven seamlessly throughout the narrative.
‘Was that when it all began? Was that when Nance first began to learn about the strange hinges of the world, the thresholds between what was known and all that lay beyond?’
I loved The Good People and found it to be a moving, evocative story of belief, love and devotion. It is a compelling story of three women and their journey to save a child, in a world where the harsh realities of nineteenth century life combine with traditional Irish folklore.
The Good People is to be published on 9th February 2017 by Picador. Many thanks to Katie Green at Picador for providing a proof copy for review.