“The Good People are cunning when they are not merry. They 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”
The Good People is the second novel by award-winning Australian author, Hannah Kent. It’s 1825, and Nora Leahy lives in a small mountain village near the Flesk River, about ten miles from Killarney. When John O’Donoghue and Peter O‘Connor, two men of the village bring the body of her just deceased husband, Martin to their cabin, she is understandably distraught. But her very first thought is to ask Peter to take her grandson, Micheal, to her nearest neighbour, Peg O’Shea. She knows the cabin will soon fill with neighbours, and doesn’t want Michael seen.
Two months earlier, her son-in-law, Tadgh Kelliher had brought news of the passing of her only daughter, Johanna, and left their son, Micheal in his grandparents’ care. But four-year-old Micheal cannot walk, cannot talk, and screams inconsolably much of the time. Nora is now left to care for him alone, and she knows the village will be superstitious about his deformities.
Peg suggests she needs help, so she hires fourteen-year-old Mary Clifford at the hiring fair in Killarney. Mary does her best, but Nora is desperate to bring Micheal back to the healthy state she remembers when he was two. When the local woman “with the knowledge”, Nance Roche sees Micheal, she tells Nora he is likely a changeling: she knows how to bring back Nora’s grandson and banish this unwanted fairy.
“Nance knew that the only reason they had allowed her this damp cabin between mountain and wood and river for twenty-odd years was because she stood in for that which was not and could not be understood. She was the gatekeeper at the edge of the world. The final human hymn before all fell to wind and shadow and the strange creaking of stars. She was a pagan chorus. An older song”
“Nora saw the boy as Nance saw him then. A wild, crabbed child no heavier than the weight of snow upon a branch. A clutch of bones rippling with the movement of wind on water. Thistle-headed. Fierce-chinned. Small fingers clutching in front of him as though the air were filled with wonders and not the smoke of the fire and their own stale breath”
Kent bases her tale on a real life event, so reading the Author’s Note last will avoid spoilers. With her gorgeous descriptive prose, Kent easily evokes the day-to-day village life in early 19th century Ireland. The depth of her research into this period is apparent in every paragraph, but all those little details are woven seamlessly into the story: things like the average diet (potatoes, dairy products, tea and poitin), death rituals, footwear (none), customs, beliefs and common sayings give the tale authenticity.
This was an era when religious belief existed side by side with folk belief. Natural occurrences like stillbirth, heart attack, accidental injury, poor milk production or low crop yield were often seen as signs or omens of something sinister; rituals to avoid these were a daily practice. Kent paints a picture of a village where jealousy, resentment, rumour and superstition lead to a sort of mass hysteria.
Each of Kent’s three main characters has very human flaws, even when their intentions are good: “Nora had always believed herself to be a good woman. A kind woman. But perhaps, she thought, we are good only when life makes it easy for us to be so. Maybe the heart hardens when good fortune is not there to soften it”.
Her final evocative paragraph (“The air was sweet and damp. A morning mist rolled down off the mountains and their purple skins. Hares moved lightly through the heather, white tails scuttling through the dark tangle of brambles before the rowan trees, blossom-white, the clover. The lane was empty before her, and there was no movement in the waiting valley, no wind. Only the birds above her and, in the slow unpeeling of darkness, a divinity of sky”) confirm Kent’s deserved place in historical fiction. Kent’s second novel does not disappoint. 5 stars