The Good People by Hannah Kent

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.

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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.

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Published in 2017 by Pan Macmillan (UK edition pictured above).

Purchase from Wordery, Foyles, and Blackwell’s.

WWW Wednesday, 1st March 2017

I’ve only participated in WWW Wednesday once before, and that was ages ago, so I felt like giving it another try. The idea is to post three things:

  • What you most recently finished reading
  • What you are currently reading
  • What you will read next

Hence ‘WWW’! So here goes:

What I recently finished reading: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

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I read this last month after having meant to read it for years, and I’m glad I finally did. I was spurred on by the upcoming TV adaptation, and also by the fact that this mad dystopia seems oddly relevant these days, especially in the States… my review is here.

What I am currently reading: Labyrinths: Emma Jung, her Marriage to Carl, and the Early Years of Psychoanalysis by Catrine Clay

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I am almost at the end of this book and have loved it so far. I knew nothing about Emma Jung before I read it, and she has turned out to be an engaging and fascinating character. I would recommend this to anyone interested in the field and period. You can see the book on GoodReads here.

What I’m going to read next: The Good People by Hannah Kent

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I loved Hannah Kent’s first novel, Burial Rites, and so when I heard she had a new book coming out I just knew I had to read it. This one has a similarly beautiful cover, and I think it will be just as fascinating and wonderful as its predecessor. You can read more about it on GoodReads here.

So there you have it! What are you WWW Wednesday books?

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

I think it is far to say that in the time since it has been published, less than a month, Burial Rites has become a bit of a ‘sensation’. It is everywhere, and everyone seems to be talking about it. I don’t usually rush to read books that have a lot of hype around them, but I was genuinely attracted to the story this book tells, and I had to buy myself a copy.

The UK cover is also beautiful. The pages are edged in black too, which not only fits with the colour scheme of the cover but adds a sense of the gothic, of something dark and cold; it hints at the sad story within.

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2013 Picador hardback edition (image: goodreads.com)

When Hannah Kent was a student in her native Australia, she went on an exchange trip to Iceland. She was seventeen, alone in a foreign land entirely different from her own, and felt like an outsider. She came across the story of Agnes Magnusdottir – the last woman to be executed in Iceland. Agnes was an outsider too, and Kent felt some small connection with her. On her return to Australia, the story of Agnes stayed with Kent, and she ended up choosing her story for her PhD thesis – the manuscript that would become Burial Rites. After taking a research trip to Iceland, where she poured over records and archives, Kent wrote her own version of Agnes’ story.

In her early thirties Agnes was convicted, along with a young man named Fridrik Sigurdsson, of the murders of two men, Natan Ketilsson and Petur Jonsson. The murders were committed in 1828 and the pair were executed in 1830. At the time Iceland was under the rule of the Danish Crown, and prisoners were usually sent to Denmark to serve time, or to be executed. A lack of money meant that Agnes and Fridrik were kept in Iceland – first in rudimentary prisons, and then placed on separate farms to work and repent. Agnes was placed on a farm called Kornsa, as the owner, Jon Jonsson, was a District Commissioner. Burial Rites begins as Agnes is moved from her temporary prison and taken to Kornsa.

The family there are informed that they must house her, and given no choice in the matter. They are scandalised and fearful for their safety; but Margret, the mother, takes some pity on Agnes and asks for her shackles to be removed. She also helps her to wash, and gives her clean clothes. The prisoner is set to work on the farm, and she is given a young priest to help her pray and repent for her crimes as she prepares to ‘meet her destiny’. Over the course of the novel we hear more and more about Agnes’ life, abandoned by her mother and shuffled between farms as a servant; and we learn about how she came to know Natan Ketilsson, to live with him – and to kill him.

The narration alternates between third person, and first person in Agnes’ voice. It is a very real voice, if that makes sense – I imagine Kent would have had to empathise as much as possible and really try to put herself in Agnes’ shoes. The despair, longing, sadness, resignation and fear the Agnes feels during her time at Kornsa are all relayed to the reader through Kent, and you really feel that Agnes is speaking to you from 1829. I know that sounds corny, but the voice is just so believable, so down to earth and relatable that the real Agnes seems to connect with Kent’s fictional version of her.

Hannah Kent. Image: courier-journal.com
Hannah Kent. Image: courier-journal.com

While we empathise and sympathise with Agnes and her terrible fate, we also see every flaw in her character, and believe that she may have been capable of murder. Yet, I still doubted at times whether she was guilty; and even if she was, I did not want her to die. Iceland and the UK no longer have the death penalty, and this book, I think, explains why that is so important. Even is someone has committed something as terrible and unforgivable as murder, killing them does not make things right; and they are still a person. They don’t deserve to die – no one does. And when you have read this book, and heard Agnes’ story, you will wish that she did not have to die for what she did – and not in the way that she did.

I finished Burial Rites just before bed a couple of nights ago, and it kept me awake. I felt an immense sadness for Agnes. The final pages are particularly heart wrenching and I wished I could take away Agnes’ fear. Hannah Kent is a truly beautiful writer, who has engaged deeply with a strange and mysterious woman from more than a hundred years ago, and brought her to life again in the 21st century. But it was not only sadness for Agnes that kept me awake. It was an overwhelming sense of emotional connection with many of the characters in this novel, Margret in particular. I will be thinking about this novel, and the people within it, for a long time.

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Published by Picador in the UK, and by Little, Brown in the US, in September 2013.

Hannah Kent writes for the Guardian about how she came to write Burial Rites

A photo essay from Iceland by Hannah Kent featuring locations from the book

Hannah Kent’s website