Book Review: The Good People by Hannah Kent

The Good People are cunning when are not merry. The do what pleases them because they serve neither God nor Devil, and no one can assure them of a place in Heaven or Hell. Not good enough to be saved , and not bad enough to be lost.

In Hannah Kent’s second novel, The Good People, the otherworldly beliefs of 19th century Ireland are rendered with such thoughtful detail that the reader is utterly transported into the daily life of one small Irish village. Brimming with nuanced macabre and the earthy textures and scents of cottage living, Kent breaths life into a forgotten history and the beliefs steadfastly held by its people.

When she felt the weight of her grief threaten to press her to the floor, Nora retreated to the cabin walls and pushed her palms against the cool limewash the steady herself. She took deep breaths and stared at the people in the room. Most of them were from the valley, tied to one another by blood and labor and a shared understanding of the traditions stamped into the soil by those who had some before them.

Nóra has recently suffered a great deal of loss with the sudden passing of her husband and the unexpected death of her daughter not long before that which left her to care for her young grandson. When Nóra first set eyes on her grandson, Micheál, whom she had not seen in some time, it quickly became clear that something was not right; he was not the precocious, bright child she remembered. At 4-years-old he can no longer speak or use his legs and he cries out in pain and suffering throughout the night.

Rumors begin to spin in the village, blaming the recent tragedies, death and famine, on the unnatural state of the child. Nóra is unsure of what to make of his condition- blaming it first on malnutrition and then on a simple, delicate constitution. She is at loss for how to care for Micheál when she is overwhelmed by her new path of life. Grief-stricken and adrift, Nóra resolves to do better by the child so she hires a caretaker for him to help ease her transition out of mourning.

And then she had drawn closer and seen that it, he, was alive, her heart had dropped in fear. Thin and flared with disease like those that sucked the sap from a plant and shriveled in to withered stalk. She had been sent to a home touched with sickness, and she would be tainted with it.

Mary is an impressionable but hardworking young woman with a gentle heart. She is hired under the pretense of serving Nóra as a maid, farmhand and childminder- though she is not made aware as to the state of the child she is expected to care for. When she first sets eyes on Micheál it is clear to her what he is: a changeling- a fairy child exchanged by the Good People for the human Micheál. This realization sticks with Nóra and she holds fast to the conviction that her true grandson is waiting for her to rescue him.

Nóra shook her head vehemently. “I’ll be getting rid of it. I could never forgive myself if I did not try to find my grandson, Peg. For Martin’s sake. For my daughter’s. I’m going to get Micheal back. I’m after other ways.”

Together, Nóra and Mary enlist the help of the local healer, Nance, who is known for her deft command of herbs and incantations, known throughout the village as ‘the cure’. Nance is a wizened older woman with an uncanny ability to tap into the spiritual nature of the village and harness the power the Good People have bestowed onto her, or so it is believed. She is quick to ascertain that Mary’s recognition of the changeling child is correct and she does not hesitate in her attempts to banish it. As these attempts grow more rigorous, Nóra’s desperation escalates.

Blinded by loneliness and depleted by the endless demands of the child, Nóra is unwilling to see past the superstitions she believes will cure him. When tragedy strikes, the folklore of the village collides with the modernity of the Irish Church and what follows is a desperate battle.

Expertly researched and rendered, The Good People is a riveting historical fiction that captures the ways people fiercely clutch their beliefs and the cost of such tenacity.

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A review copy of this title was provided by Little Brown and Co.

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