This is a book steeped in the folklore and superstition that I’m sure reigned worldwide at the beginning of the nineteenth century but possibly had its most ardent followers in the Irish countryside with its stories of fairies, changelings and many rituals to ward off evil.
Set in County Kerry in 1825 in a remote valley lying between the mountains of south-west Ireland,near the Flesk river we meet Nóra Lehay when she learns of the death of her husband Martin. Only earlier that year the pair had suffered the loss of their only daughter Johanna and as a result their four year-old grandson Micheál. Poor Micheál is unable to walk and Nora has kept him hidden from her neighbours but now with the house about to fill up with mourners, she decides to give him to her neighbour, Peg O’Shea to mind.
The women gather at the well and swap gossip and Nóra’s bad luck is part of the daily currency. Peg is more understanding, with Nóra struggling to cope as she refuses to take Micheál out of their home, she suggests she goes to the hiring fair to get herself a young girl to lend a pair of hands.
This book is beautifully written and I became immersed in the small house, the winter pressing down on an already bleak home. The simple lifestyle with the local handy woman dispensing herbs and cures for all manner of ills was easy to imagine with the lyrical writing and the occasional Gallic phrase served to add a layer of authenticity to what felt like a meticulously researched book. The superstitions that seemed so quaint at the opening of the book soon take a darker turn with many of the villagers reporting bad luck in the form of the drying up of milk from the cows and the lack of eggs from the hens. These basic needs are so important when the inhabitants are living from hand to mouth, and soon the murmurs of something causing the bad luck begin to turn into positive finger-pointing and some of those fingers point at Micheál.
There is no doubt at all that Hannah Kent knows how to tell a story, she is a master of the show and not tell with the various superstitions on which the villagers rely on are seamlessly interspersed throughout the tale. The atmosphere she creates as the backdrop oppressive with little relief and I felt that I was immersed in a world far away from my home comforts. The characters were well-drawn and although I wouldn’t have wanted to share the bleak winter with some of them, had enough of a back-story for me to understand them. This wasn’t after all a world where a battered wife could up sticks and leave. There is one woman, the handy woman, Nance Roche, who lives close to the part of the forest where the fairies are thought to dwell, whose life seemed to be a litany of hardship, and was one of many who illustrated quite how strong the survival instinct is. Her story combined with that of Mary the maid, just a young teen, confronted with caring for a young boy who couldn’t walk or talk and screamed through the night was almost too awful to imagine. The hardship was sadly all too easy to imagine.
The Good People is a heart-breaking novel which provoked a feeling similar to that I had when reading the author’s debut book Burial Rites, a feeling that the outcome was inevitable, yet I read it desperately hoping for something to happen that would change its course. The story is all the more devastating because like Burial Rites it is inspired by a real event.
I’d like to thank the publishers Pan Macmillan for allowing me to read a copy of The Good People ahead of the publication of the hardback on 9 February 2017.