Some of you may know of the author Hannah Kent, whose debut novel Burial Rites, set in Iceland, became a popular bestseller. I never did get around to reading it, though I would still like to, and it was for that reason I was intrigued to pick up this, her second historical novel, set in Ireland during the early 1800’s.
The Good People centres around the lives of three Irish country women, Nora, who has recently become a widow in the same year her daughter passed away, Mary, the teenage housemaid she employs to help her take care of a 4-year-old cripple, the grandson her son-in-law left with her; and Nance, an ageing spinster who lives in a mud shack on the edge of the forest, the one with “the knowledge” whom certain members of the community go to when the remedies of the doctor and the priest yield no cure.
Nora has not consulted Nance before, though her husband Martin had. She is wary of others and their superstitions so keeps the boy hidden from their prying eyes, lest they connect his condition to the string of bad luck in the community, for there are some saying he has ‘the fairy in him’, that he was a changeling, as if possessed.
In Irish folklore, people believed that fairies (Irish fairies appear to be a lot more sinister than the Disney kind) could entice or abduct a child away, leaving a malformed substitute (fairy) in its place, recognisable due to its ugly appearance, ill-health, bad temper and old world look of knowledge in their eyes. There were a number of ‘cures’ that might be applied to ‘sweep’ out the fairy and restore the child.
The novel follows the events that occur during the time Mary stays with Nora, as the widow increasingly begins to doubt the child is her grandson and treats “it” as if he were a changeling and Nance’s ways are denounced by the new priest.
‘I have been told you make it your trade to cry at burials.’
‘What is the harm in that?’
‘Your sorrow is artificial, Nance. Rather than comfort those who are afflicted, you live upon their dead.’
Nance shook her head. ‘I do not, Father. That’s not it at all. I feel their sorrow. I give voice to the grief of others when they have not a voice for it themselves.’
The novel immerses the reader deep into the folklore of 19th century Ireland, portraying many of its characters and the community around them as believers of those ancient ways, practitioners of protective rituals, despite the existence of more rational medicines and beliefs.
‘That’s right. Lights. Coming from here the fairies do be, down by the Piper’s Grave,’ Peter continued. Now I might not have the full of my eyes, but I swear I saw a glowing by that whitethorn. You mark my words, there’ll be another death in this family before long.’ His voice dropped to a whisper. ‘First the daughter passes, and now the husband. I tell you, death likes three in company. And if the Good People had a hand in it… well.’
The old ways brush up against the new and culminate in a challenge of one versus the other through the justice system.
Clearly, an extraordinarily well-researched novel, based on certain real events, it succeeds in creating an authentic sense of place, inside the very primitive home of Nora imbued with a strong sense of dread that this is not going to end well. We are shown how things came to be for all three characters and the reactions of the community around them, quick to fear and to judge.
What it really excels at, is to make the reader wonder what is real and what is not, after the rejection of the doctor and the priest, we understand how the maid and the widow want desperately to believe in the knowledge of Nance and her alternative “cure”, providing a fascinating insight into a cultural folklore that had much of its community in its grip (and some say does still).
Despite this authenticity, I found it lagged in the mid-section, as Nance’s back story was filled in, causing me to lose interest in picking the book up for a while. It picked up again as the author returned to moving the plot forward. It’s a book, that despite its flaws is likely to generate interesting discussions, of those ancient rituals and beliefs and the cases that became well-known, of cures gone wrong.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.
(Excerpt from ‘The Stolen Child’ by W.B Yeats)
Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the publisher via NetGalley.