Like many readers I loved Hannah Kent’s first novel Burial Rites (2013), so I had high expectations for The Good People. Like its predecessor it is set in the first half of the 19th century, this time in 1820s Ireland. Also like Burial Rites, it features unhappy women as its central characters.
The blurb dedicates a paragraph each to the three central women of The Good People – Nóra, recently widowed and looking after her disabled grandson Micheál; Mary, her maid, who cares for Micheál; and Nance, the local ‘handy woman’ who has ‘the knowledge’ and serves as a healer for the village. Initially the focus is on Nóra as she grieves for her husband and struggles to take care of Micheál. We learn that his mother, Nóra’s daughter Johanna, passed away and his father brought him to Nóra because he could not care for him himself. Micheál is about four years old and before he was brought to her, Nóra had only seen him once before, at the age of two, and he was healthy. He could speak and walk – two things that he cannot do when he is brought to her.
Micheál, though four, is more like a baby and can do nothing for himself. His condition is inexplicable to his family, and theories abound as to why he is now so unwell, when once he was healthy. When the villagers come to Nóra’s house for her husband’s wake, she asks her neighbour Peg to look after her grandson – she is ashamed of him and does not want to face the stares and questions of her visitors, or their theories about him.
Initially Nóra worries that Johanna and her husband may have mistreated or neglected Micheál as he is so thin, but over time she doubts this. Slowly both Nóra and the others in the village begin to think that the child may be a changeling – not really a child at all but a fairy left in his place, while the real Micheál has been taken away by the ‘Good People’, the fairies. This was a common belief in many cultures at the time (the Wiki page is quite good) and was how people explained disability or conditions that we now understand thanks to modern science and medicine.
Nóra soon employs Mary to help her look after Micheál. She becomes more and more convinced that her grandson is a changeling and leaves Mary to care for him. The village is a place filled with old stories and beliefs, and its people are ruled by superstition and fear, as well as gossip. There is a dichotomy between their Christianity and their belief in fairies, curses, and the healing powers of herbs and old remedies. This is nicely demonstrated by the cynicism of their priest, Father Healy. He does not believe in the Good People and condemns them as pagan nonsense.
He similarly condemns Nance and her belief that she has been given knowledge by the Good People and is able to cure illnesses and ailments. There are several fascinating and challenging conversations between them as he urges her to give up her practices, and she calmly defends herself. Nance’s whole life has been filled with magic and fairies, with her mother being ‘taken’ by them, and her aunt Maggie teaching her how to use their knowledge and cures. In a series of flashbacks to Nance’s youth it becomes clear that her mother was mentally ill in some way, and Nance’s grief was eased by her new knowledge of the Good People and their ways.
As Nóra becomes more desperate she turns to Nance for help with Micheál, and this is where the story really gets interesting. It is heartbreaking to read about the boy’s suffering, and the stress of caring for him, but it gets worse as Nóra’s belief that he is not really her grandson deepens. She starts to call him ‘it’ and becomes angry when he cries. As Nóra becomes more and more hardened to the boy, Mary becomes more worried about him, and warns Nóra that even if she believes he is a changeling she should not be so cold and cruel towards him. Mary’s fear of God means that she is able to protect the boy from the worst of his grandmother’s feelings towards him.
I won’t spoil the book by writing about what happens when Micheál is taken to Nance, and what happens at the end. It is a story that is sometimes difficult to read, as we can see that Micheál is suffering – but we also see how hard it is care for him without modern conveniences and technology. Mary has the best intentions but is still worn down by sleep deprivation and the constant attention her young charge requires. The world these characters inhabit is hard and cruel, and unforgiving. Towards the end of the book you really begin to realise just how isolated they are in their rural community and how ignorant they are of the developments of science and technology. They are illiterate and exist in their own small world.
Hannah Kent sensitively portrays a certain time and a certain place in The Good People. None of the characters are portrayed as evil or bad because they believe that Micheál may be a changeling – rather they are ignorant of any other explanation for his condition and desperately want a way to make things better. They are torn between folklore and Christianity and inhabit a world that seems completely alien to us now. Some parts of the novel are heart-wrenchingly sad, and you wish you could reach in and make the characters see that what they believe simply isn’t true.
The Good People is as intense and moving as Burial Rites, and also presents a lot of moral and ethical questions, many of which are indirectly but carefully examined. As expected Hannah Kent’s writing is as lovely as ever, and the novel is immersive and engaging. I would only warn readers against the deep sadness in this book – but otherwise it is highly recommended.
Published in 2017 by Pan Macmillan (UK edition pictured above).