I was completely captivated by Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites when I read it earlier this year, and was very excited to learn that her second book wasn’t far away. And I’m pleased to say that The Good People doesn’t disappoint.
Set in Ireland in 1825, The Good People starts with the death of Martin Leahy. His widow, Nora, is beside herself with grief. Their daughter had died only a few months previously, and Nora has now been left on her own with her grandson to care for. The child is 4, but can no longer walk or speak, and was brought to the Leahys in this state by his father at the same time he told them of their daughter’s death. Nora does not love this ghost that used to be her grandson, and caring for him on her own is more than she can cope with.
At the urging of one of her neighbours, Nora attends the local hiring fair, and brings home 14 year old Mary Clifford to help her with the boy. Mary is horrified at the state of the child – from a large family she has never seen a child with this kind of illness, but she takes on the care of Micheál and grows find of him despite the hard work.
In the deepening throes of grief, Nora’s tolerance of the boy decreases rapidly to the point that she scares Mary with her violence towards the child. Nance, the local handy woman, finds Mary injured after she has gone to collect herbs for the boy as instructed by a neighbour where she fled for assistance. Nance, well known through the village for being gifted with ‘the cure’, accompanies Mary back to the Leahy house. She can see the boy is a changeling – the boy having been taken in exchange for this sickly fairy now languishing in his place. And Nance knows how to get the real Micheál back from the Good People.
The female characters are wonderful studies of how hard life was for women at the time, with the beautifully symbolic trinity of the maiden, the mother and the crone. Nance, our crone, is a wonderful portrait of a woman trained in the old ways, sought by all for her assistance until times become difficult and the local priest and a grieved man in the village manage to turn sentiment against her. Nora has done very thing a woman is ‘supposed’ to do – married, born children, been a good woman, but her life is still very difficult, and becomes even more so when her man dies. Maiden Mary is looking to help her family by working to bring in money to help feed the mouths at home. She has to hope that her employer will be kind. Women are supposed to behave and do what they are told, and none of these three women are good at that.
The little village in which the story is set gives the claustrophobic feel of a place where everyone not only knows everyone else, but is related to everyone else in one way or another. There are no secrets, rumours and gossip abound, resentments build and tempers can flare with lethal intensity.
The Irish folklore is completely integrated into the story, into the way the characters speak and think. This is both fascinating and terrifying. The villagers live with magic as a built in, scary and threatening part of their lives, with even the science of the time not really entering their lives in any meaningful way.
I really enjoyed Kent’s captivating writing, her in depth character building and her descriptions of the world as a place where the Good People can change the trajectory of your life and fortunes if you don’t pay them the respect they deserve.
5 out of 5 difficult women.