Review: The Good People

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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.


There are so many layers to the book that make for wonderful reading.

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.

Review: The Birdman’s Wife

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The Birdman’s Wife is a beautiful piece of historical fiction which reimagines the life of Elizabeth Gould, wife of John Gould who is best known for his work documenting Australia’s birds.

The book follows Elizabeth into her marriage with John, through her early work, the loss of her two children and her trip with John to Australia to record Australia’s bird life. This was an unconventional decision for Elizabeth as it meant leaving three of her four children behind in England during the 2 year journey. But Elizabeth was clearly unconventional, working to produce over 600 lithographs while she was also bearing and raising children in an upper class family.

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This is a meticulously researched debut novel. The writing seems a little stilted at the opening of the relationship between John and Elizabeth, but then the author hits her stride and both Elizabeth and her subjects leap from the page. As the daughter of a lithographer, I enjoyed reading about the process used prior to the technology of the 20th century – incredibly difficult work which could be ruined by a fingerprint or a mistimed exhalation. I also enjoyed learning more about the research done by the Goulds and their journey through the fledgling colony. I wish there had been more mention of the Indigenous peoples, but on reflection this was probably outside of Elizabeth’s experience.

This book is a tribute both to an amazing woman and Australia’s bird life. I’m looking forward to reading more by Melissa Ashley.

 

4 out of 5  encounters with Prince Albert.

Review: Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty

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This book came to my attention as Rebecca Schinsky from Book Riot described it “as feminist as fuck” on Litsy. (If you are not on Litsy, you need to ask yourself some serious questions about what you’re doing with your life. Please rectify immediately.)

Edgar and Fern are happily married with three children, living a life of comfort thanks to Fern’s moneyed parents. This grinds to a sudden stop when Fern is told that the money from her parent’s estate is gone. Someone is going to have to start working to keep the family in its lifestyle and, as was customary in the time (the 70’s) and the class (white and upper class) that someone should be Edgar.

Unfortunately Edgar is the worst socialist ever to walk the earth. He has high and mighty ideals about money and its role in the world, but manages to ignore the fact that his luxurious and rarefied lifestyle is thanks to the money earned by first his father, and then from his wife’s inheritance. Edgar throws a tantrum at his wife’s expectation which takes the form of him engaging in an affair and leaving on an adventure without telling Fern.

Fern is also tempted away on an adventure without telling Edgar. This leaves the three children finding themselves suddenly abandoned and fending for themselves, discovering that the childhood dream of having no parents around isn’t as great as the reality.

This book is beautifully and lyrically written, with plenty of examination of women’s roles as wife and mother and the expectations placed on them. Women of this class and era had no real choice but to be wives and  mothers – there was no market for any other role and to find yourself outside these roles was to be a scandal, which simply wasn’t done.

I particularly enjoyed the rendering of Fern’s mother, who chose her husband not because she loved him, but because he was the least likely to interfere in her life. Evelyn had her own things that she wanted to do, but as a woman, she was expected to not do them in favour of her wifely and motherly duties. She was not a good mother, or a good wife, and she knew this and made no apology for either.

Edgar on the other hand is a prize winning dick, and I could cheerfully have slapped him multiple times throughout the book. I’ve read a few reviews which indicate that he “redeems” himself at the end. I’m don’t think he does, although he does start to realise that he has been a dick, even though I think the reason for that realisation is for the wrong one.

The theme of this book is the good old “money can’t buy you happiness, and family is everything” with a coda of “unless your family sucks, in which case you’re screwed”.

This is a delightful, summery read with magic on every page.

5 out of 5 beach houses.

 

 

 

Review: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

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I don’t tend to read a lot of modern Australian writers. This is possibly the result of a literature degree which included a couple of subjects which fetishised Australian writers. I’m not sure if I blame Marcus Clarke or A.B. Facey more. Either way, those guys are the top of my list.

Australians are known as being pretty laid back and I feel this comes across in the writing style of modern Aussie authors. Plus there is also the obligatory obsession with the bleak, sparse and deadly Australian landscape (if you’re a white fella). I recently attempted both Geraldine Brooks’ The Story of the Book and Shirley Barrett’s Rush O! The Story of the Book left me cold and I was disappointed with Rush O! after the wonderful quirkiness that was Love Serenade.

It wasn’t until I was about a third of the way through the book when I learned that Hannah Kent is a compatriot. Reader, I nearly fell off my chair.

Burial Rites is the story of Agnes Magnusdottir the last person executed in Iceland. She is sentenced to death for her part in the brutal murder of her former master. This is a brilliant and evocative re-imagining of her story, written like a love letter to Iceland. Agnes may have been sentence to death, but there are no jails to hold her until her sentence can be carried out. So the District Officer calls for her to be held by one of the local government officials. Of course there is no where for her to be “held”, so she sleeps in the same rooms as the official, his wife and two daughters and works along side them on their farm.

Toti, the priest who Agnes has  chosen to be her spiritual guide through her last days, gains her trust which allows her to tell her side of the story. Toti and the farming family learn that there is much more to Agnes than her death sentence, and much more to her story than they could have ever imagined.

The telling of the story oscillates between third person past tense and first person chapters present tense, capturing Agnes’ story through the eyes of herself and those around her.  Normally I would find the change in tense particularly jarring, but the writing was so captivating I didn’t even notice until midway through the book.

The writing is beautiful, bringing to life the people, the harsh conditions and the whirling of Agnes’ mind as she plunges towards her last days, her life completely out of her control. Iceland and the cold could have been characters in the book – I feel as though I know them both a little better.

The reimagining of Agnes’ life is beautiful, harrowing and real.Kent’s research was extensive, and the book includes some versions of her source materials – Rosa’s poems being some of my favourites.

I listened to the audiobook, splendidly narrated by Morven Christie who captures he characters, particulary Agnes, and breathes life into them.

They said I must die. They said that I stole the breath from men and that now they must steal mine. I imagine then that we are all candle flames, greasy bright, fluttering in the darkness and the howl of the wind. And in the stillness of the room I hear footsteps, awful coming footsteps, coming to blow me out and send my life up and away from me in  grey wreath of smoke. I will vanish into the air and the night.

I’m very much looking forward to Kent’s new book The Good People due out in October this year.

5 out of 5 blood sausages.