26 February 2018

The Good People / Hannah Kent

Not all superstitions are quaint and benign.

Having enjoyed Hannah Kent's debut, Burial Rites, I put this book on hold at my library as soon as I saw it on the list of new acquisitions, without any idea of what it was about. I didn't know at the time that its title is one of the names given to fairies in Ireland, or that the topic it explores so perfectly coincides with my current "peculiar stories" kick.

Set in an isolated Irish valley in the early 19th century, this novel recounts the devastating consequences of a perfect storm of grief, superstitious beliefs, spite, gossip, coincidence and misinterpretation on the lives of three women: newly widowed Nóra Leahy, her young maid Mary Clifford, and local wise woman Nance Roche.

Shortly after her daughter dies and her young grandson Micheál is entrusted to her care, Nóra also suddenly loses her husband in inexplicable circumstances. She continues to keep the little boy out of the neighbours' sight to avoid their gawking and awkward questions; he's so unlike the normal child she saw 2 years previously...

Attempting to make sense of her misfortunes and of the hardships that seem to plague the area ever since Micheál's arrival, Nóra starts to wonder whether the explanation might be found close to home. All of the signs — misshapen limbs, the inability to speak or walk, constant restlessness, incessant neediness, failure to thrive, an insatiable hunger, an almost complete lack of awareness of his surroundings — appear to confirm that the boy is a changeling, a child of the fairies left by them in exchange for her real grandchild. The doctor diagnoses cretinism, which he can do nothing about. The new priest refuses to bless Micheál in order to cure whatever ails him. Nance Roche unsuccessfully administers a few herbal remedies. Something must be done, an increasingly desperate Nóra pleads, to force the Good People to return her grandson to her.

In both this and her previous novel, Hannah Kent leads us through a door into an intimate world where we can observe the details and textures of our surroundings from close up, almost becoming part of the dramatis personae. Here, she ushers us into a syncretic community where fairy lore, age-old practices and Christian faith are inextricably interlocked — where people set piseógs to harm their neighbours, carry a dead ember in their pocket to ward off the púca if they must be outdoors at night, break off the corner of their freshly baked loaf of bread to let the devil out, and believe with all their might that their loved ones can be "swept" by the fairies. This was a genuinely immersive reading experience for me. I could feel the freezing mud on my bare feet, taste poitín on my tongue, smell turf smoke on the air. The knot in my stomach tightened as the characters became trapped by the escalating events.

As much as it tells a tragic tale, this novel is an exploration of complicity and of the tenacity of the old ways as science takes hold on so-called civilised society. How easy it would have been for the author, and therefore the reader, to slip into a superior attitude towards these "ignorant peasants," were not the characters, and Nóra in particular, so finely drawn and complex. It's a testament to her skills that what initially seems utterly nonsensical conduct very slowly becomes plausible.

It may be a little early to state this, but I think The Good People, along with Hannah Kent's Lithub article about her brief encounters with Ann Roche in newspaper archives, may have started winning me over to the concept of fiction based on real-life events and/or persons...

Well, stranger things have happened.

If you share my curiosity for Irish faily lore and other related topics, there's a list of sources at the end of the book. Additionally, to learn more about the extremes to which the belief in changelings can drive perfectly normal individuals, listen to episode #11 of the Lore podcast (but be warned: you'll need a strong stomach).

I borrowed this book from my local library.

Rating: ****


  1. Tiens, tiens, encore quelque chose qui rejoint les intérêts de mon chum… Vu le nombre de tes billets que je lui ai transféré récemment, je serais aussi bien de lui dire de s'abonner à ton blogue! Merci, encore une fois, de partager tes trouvailles.


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