Title: The Good People
Writer: Hannah Kent
Publishing House: Pan McMillan
Date of Publication: September 27th 2016
Rating: 5 stars.
“She was the gatekeeper at the edge of the world. The final human hymn before all fell to wind and shadow and the strange crooning of stars. She was a pagan chorus. An older song.”
One of the most exciting and nervous moments in the life of a dedicated reader is the minute we open the next book by a writer who produced a masterpiece whose roots are planted deep in our soul, a novel that has never really left our mind since the last page was turned. In this case, I’m talking about Hannah Kent and her debut novel “Burial Rites”. I think the vast majority of those who read it adored it and those who didn’t still found many things to appreciate. Her sophomore effort is no less exciting, beautiful, haunting and agonizing. The only exception is the lack of a character who could rival Agnes’ powerful voice and convictions. The three women in “The Good People” don’t even come close, but it doesn’t matter because the mysticism that flows through Kent’s exquisite own makes this novel a 5-star read.
-They say there’s portent in the direction of a new year’s wind.
-What does a wind from the west bring?
Please God, a better year than last.
The previous year has brought all kinds of misfortune for Nora. She lost her daughter to a sudden, wasting disease, her husband collapsed after a heart attack and she is left with her grandson, Micheál, who has lost the power of his legs, his speech and his mind. She hires a young woman, Mary, to aid her with her load and pays frequent visits to Nanche, an old woman who claims to possess the intimate knowledge of herbs and fairies. The three women are our ears and ears in the story, each one different in her fears, but with the feeling of despair and helplessness for things beyond their understanding.
“Such a dark season of death and strangeness.”
Kent sets her story perfectly. Strange accidents are taking place, the hens and the chickens are not producing their goods as before, the cold is unusually severe, the fog is too thick, the sun has darkened. For a community that is steeped in superstition and gossiping, these events mean only one thing. The Evil Eye is upon them and they are certain that more wrongs will follow.
“They have always been here. They are as old as the sea.”
The Good People of the title are the Fairy Folk, the main stars in the tradition that has shaped a great part of the outstanding Irish Folk we have all come to love. Nanche believed that all misfortunes have been caused by the creatures of the world beyond and takes it upon herself to right the wrong. Whether she can do it or not is another matter. Her ally is Nora who, driven by her losses, is eager to put the blame on someone who is different, unwanted, unable to defend himself against the madness of a dark time.
“Don’t be questioning the old ways.”
At the heart of the story lies the legend of the Changeling. According to tradition, the fairies used to steal human babies from their cradles and leave a child of their own in their place. The fairy child was different in shape and spirit and considered evil by the community. Nora is convinced that the boy is responsible for everything, aided by Nanche. But Mary, whose bright mind is free from superstitions, has come to bond with the boy, much to Nora’s dismay.
The writing in this novel is nothing short of outstanding. It is simple, mystical, poetic and loaded with tradition. Kent inserts a plethora of traditional Irish customs and superstitions in the narration, many of which play a significant part in the development of the story. Apart from an exquisite plot, this book is a wonderful folk study of the Emerald Island. It is intriguing to witness the way the superstitions shaped and controlled the lives of the residents in the past. And they still do, albeit to a much small extent. The language is beautiful, the interactions are written with respect to the setting of the story, but there are no idioms that would present problems to those who aren’t familiar with the Irish dialects. The ambiguity of the convictions of the people is very effective and it was refreshing to see that there isn’t much focus on a rivalry between Religion and Tradition. Apart from the local priest who tries to make the people see some sense, the villagers have fully embraced a combination of Christianity and the Old Ways. The problem is that the balance is very uneven….
The characters of the three women are very well-written, interesting but can’t be compared to Agnes of “Burial Rites”. Still, Kent takes us on a journey in three very different souls. Nanche and Nora are almost fanatics and Nora is a rather contradictory character, since she is against gossips but very much in fear of the Evil Eye. I can’t say that I sympathized with her. I understand the depth of her pain, but she was so thick-headed and unfair. To use a well-known equivalent, she reminded me of the cruelty and narrow-mindedness of Catelyn Stark. Too bad no wedding was in sight…Nanche is very ambiguous. I still can’t decide whether she truly believed in what she did or it was her excuse to make herself useful. Mary is a character that shines. She seems to live in the periphery of the action, but I feel that her importance is significant. She is like us in a sense, watching and bonding with the poor, blameless child, feeling unable to stop what is coming. I fully sided with her decisions and convictions.
Hannah Kent is a born writer. Her pen is magic, her ideas and characters jump out of the page, people of their time and place but people like us. This book is a hymn to the rich Irish tradition, a mystical, haunting, dark, violent journey to places and ideas of a more innocent, more ignorant era. It is a novel to be cherished and appreciated by readers who desire meaningful stories and knowledge in the hands of a trusted artist. It is a human study of the darkest hours of our existence, when we’re faced with despair and death and don’t know in whom to trust our hopes. It is a book by Hannah Kent. This should be reason enough for you to read it….
This is a beautiful article that guide us through the glorious Irish nature, the inspiration behind Kent’s masterpiece. https://www.panmacmillan.com/blogs/picador/hannah-kent-s-the-good-people-a-photo-essay-from-i