The Good People, Hannah Kent’s second novel, tells the story of three women living in a remote Irish valley in 1825. Nora Leahy, a widow, is burdened with the care of her grandson, Michael. The boy cannot walk or speak and Nora has kept him hidden from neighbours, fearing they will believe him a ‘changeling’ (someone who has been abducted by fairies). Nora employs a young girl, Mary, to care for Michael but as the child becomes increasingly difficult to manage, Nora seeks the help of Nance Roche, an old woman known as a doctress –
“The keener. The handy woman… She was both the woman who brought babies to safe harbour in the world, and the siren that cut boats free of their anchors and sent them into the dark.
…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.“
However, the arrival of a new priest and a string of unfortunate and troubling events, makes Nance and her practices the centre of unwelcome attention –
“The parade of sickness to her door had thinned since Father Healy had preached against her. No doubt her patients’ concern for their souls was now greater than their anxiety over chapped hands or the fevers glittering through their children.”
When you start a review with caveats you know there’s a big ‘but’ coming –
- Burial Rites is one of the best books I’ve ever read, so my expectations for The Good People were unfairly and astronomically high.
- Hannah Kent’s writing about landscape and nature is unbelievably beautiful. It was breathtaking in Burial Rites and is matched in The Good People.
“December arrived and bled the days of sunlight, while the nights grew bitter, wind-rattled.”
“Nance sat in the dark of her cabin and, through her open door, watched the dying year surrender to snow.”
“Outside the night sky was gripped with stars.”
But there were a few things that troubled me about The Good People. Primarily, the story lacked intimacy and it seemed, particularly in the first quarter of the book, that Kent was info-dumping – clearly her research into Irish folklore and the use of herbs was meticulous but there was too much in the story. I wanted to know more about the characters and less about hogweed and nettles.
And because of that, I wasn’t emotionally invested in the story – where Agnes, the Icelandic murderess in Burial Rites made me weep, the character of Nora never cut deep – I was irritated by her stubbornness and didn’t feel her desperation in the way that I perhaps should have.
Finally, there’s a scene involving Nora toward the end of the book that is very similar to one about Agnes in Burial Rites. I felt let down – the similarity sucked the power from Nora’s moment of reckoning and diluted my memory of the same section in Burial Rites (and left me thinking ‘Why Hannah? Why?’).
3/5 Kent writes beautifully, there’s no doubt about that but overall, I felt that The Good People sagged under the weight of too much information.
Nora bakes soda bread to herald the new year.