What an excellent book; a really engrossing read that is brilliantly written.
Sometimes it is hard to pinpoint exactly what it is about a novel that makes it so good, and makes you read it in a rush. Just making the reader eager to keep turning the pages is one of those factors. But for me, the big feature with Hannah Kent’s new novel is that it is just so well written. As an Australian, Kent has done an amazing job at capturing a remote country and another culture from another time.
The Good People transports us back to Ireland in the 1820s. We dwell in a small village that exists on the very edge of poverty, with existence for many being no more than a harvest of potatoes, some chickens’ eggs and the milk for a cow or a goat. It is a time when people depended completely on the weather, their crops and their animals. In this harsh landscape we follow the misfortunes that descend upon Nora Leahy. Having already lost her daughter and been left to care for her handicapped grand-son, now she loses her husband too.
We see superstition and prejudice in the simple population and also the dependence that poor people have on those who know how to use plants and herbs for cures. When a doctor was too expensive to turn to, those who knew their plant lore were essential to treat sprains and burns and all manner of ailments.
In this case the woman they turn to is called Nance Roche. An aged woman who lives alone in an old hut, well away from the rest of the village. Her insistence that Nora’s young grand-son is possessed by the fairy folk, known as The Good People, leads Nora down a path that has terrible consequences.
It is hard to make such superstitions believable in the modern age, but I think Hannah Kent has done this brilliantly. By gently introducing Nance as a person many trust with their ailments and their protection against the fairy folk, we see her as an essential part of village life, even if she brings down the anger of the local priest upon herself. But just as people are willing to believe in cures for their ailments they are also willing to see the dark side of such knowledge, in spells and curses.
A truly excellent book, and a must read for 2017.