A couple of years ago, everyone was talking about Hannah Kent’s debut novel, Burial Rites. I remember reading about it on Helen’s blog and thought it sounded intriguing; but although it’s made its way onto my TBR pile I still haven’t got round to reading it. It did, however, mean that I immediately noticed her new novel, The Good People, of which I was granted a review copy. Like Burial Rites, this story is based on historical fact and, although I wasn’t sure what to expect from Kent’s writing, I’ve been deeply impressed by her superb evocation of time and place. Funnily enough, The Good People deals with very similar themes to those of Alison Littlewood’s The Hidden People, which I read last year, so beautifully told that at times one almost forgets the horrific story at its heart.
Ireland, in the mid-1820s, and Nóra Leahy has had a brutal year of it. When her beloved husband drops dead mere months after their only daughter’s death, Nóra is left to care for her grandson Micheál. In any circumstances this would be hard, but Nóra is convinced there’s something desperately wrong with the child. When she saw him as an infant two years back, he was as lively and chatty a boy as anyone could wish; yet the child she’s taken in from his widowed father is twisted, mute and closed in upon himself. He can neither walk nor understand what she says to him; he screams, shrieks and laughs without reason, and she can feel the burden of his care eating away at her. Nóra wants to believe that, with time, Micheál will get better, but she can’t bear it alone; and so she decides to employ a maid.
Mary Clifford believes she’s done well to find an honest widow as her employer, but she’s startled when she realises that her tasks will also include caring for Micheál. But she does her best for the child, taking care to keep him out of sight of the other villagers – for Nóra fears that people will think him cursed – and trying to make some kind of connection with him. Yet she’s aware that Nóra is increasingly drawing away from the boy – worse, she’s beginning to believe that he’s not truly her grandson at all. When both doctor and priest fail to offer Nóra an explanation for Micheál’s sickness, she turns instead to Nance Roche, the healer, the wise woman, who understands the ways of the Good People and may be able to restore Nóra’s healthy grandson, in place of this crippled changeling.
Nance was the most interesting character for me by a long way. She has spent her life curing her neighbours and doing her best to protect them. Despite the presence of the priest in his comfortable cottage, the people of this isolated valley don’t believe that the Church has all the answers. For them, the land is alive with ancient beliefs and customs, and ancient dangers. An ember should be carried in the pocket to protect against walking out at night. Rushes should be folded into crosses on St Brigid’s Day to protect against evil. Blood should be spilled around a house to protect the unshriven soul of a stillborn child. And one should never stray into the realm of the Good People, by the whitethorns or the untrimmed grass by the old stones, for there one may be cursed or tainted or, worst of all, swept away to the fairy kingdom never to return. It’s a land full of terrors, and Nance is the one who, ultimately, people trust to defend them:
She was the gatekeeper at the edge of the world. The final human hymn before all fell to wind and shadow and the strange creaking of stars. She was a pagan chorus an older song.
But times are changing. The Church is becoming less tolerant of folk magic, and it’s easy to mistake what Nance does for a darker kind of aid. As the winter settles on the valley, and misfortunes mount, whispers begin. Some start to suspect Nance, while others look closer to home and wonder about the crippled boy said to live in Nóra’s house.
Kent does a superb job of evoking a world where two belief systems are in a death-struggle for prominence. There’s an awful lot of information about Irish folk medicine and folk beliefs – fascinating stuff and presented as an organic part of the story rather than simply showing off the author’s research. Yet this deep understanding of the historical context is complemented by a profound, non-judgemental characterisation. She is particularly good at telling the story in the voices of the time, by which I mean that there’s no anachronistic slant in the narration. We’re steeped in a rich medley of beliefs, wrapped in the claustrophobic life of a small village, where old resentments run thick, and poison the air; and where the other world is as threateningly real as this one, crouching at the edges of things – birth, death, the changes of the seasons.
Just as day is joined to night, so does the year have its seams… And that is when They come. That is when They change their abode. Through the stitching of the year.
This is a completely convincing tale of a community shimmering on the brink between the known and the unknown, living with a kind of hybrid Christianity which includes ancient customs that have protected them since time immemorial. It looks at how disability was perceived in such communities, and the ways it might be treated. And it’s about the lengths that we will go to, to tackle loss or grief or a feeling of injustice from the world. It’s all the more disturbingly eerie for being based on fact.
I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for a fair and honest review