BURIAL Rites, Hannah Kent’s much-lauded debut novel, left the Australian author with the unenviable task of trying to match its critical success with her next novel. As with her debut, The Good People is based on a true story but this time Kent’s gaze has travelled from Iceland to 1820s Ireland and another isolated community. Its inhabitants scratch a wretched living from the land, kept alive by eating a relentless diet of potatoes. They live in fear of the ironically named Good People, the fairies who take vicious revenge on any humans who slight them.
Nora Leahy’s husband dies suddenly leaving her to care for Micheal, their disabled, four-year-old grandson. Since their daughter’s recent death, the boy has lived with his grandparents, but after an uneventful infancy Micheal has regressed and can no longer speak or walk. Nora tries to hide him away from prying eyes and gossip and hires a girl, Mary, to help her look after him. In desperation Nora appeals to a doctor and then to the Church to help Micheal. Cruelly rebuffed by both, she turns to Nance Roche, an old woman who dispenses herbal remedies and is said to communicate with the fairies. When hens stop laying and cows run dry of milk, a rumour spreads around the valley that Micheal is a changeling who has brought bad luck to all. Nora, Mary, and Nance try to protect the child and using the old ways, bring him back to himself.
The atmosphere Kent creates is claustrophobic and fearful. The dirt floor houses are poorly lit and full of smoke from the turf fires. Rain is ever-present, casting a gloomy pall over the valley, and clothes never dry. It is a dank and miserable existence with only ‘poitin’, local moonshine alcohol, for comfort. The old-fashioned rhythms of speech and scattering of Irish Gaelic words help to root the story in a specific time and place. The Good People are portrayed as an everyday fact of life and Kent carefully passes no modern-day judgements on the widespread belief in the fairies in the community.
Nora is a sympathetic character, as she copes with losing her daughter and husband within months of each other and being left with a ‘cratur’ that at times frightens her. Nevertheless, her valiant attempts to protect Micheal show her courage and compassion. Mary, the bright teenage girl whom Nora hires, also tries to shield Micheal from the growing gossip. Nance, however, is the most interesting character, an old woman who has known great hardship, and has had to create a life for herself with her herbal remedies and knowledge of the Good People. The brash new priest, Father Healy, sets out to discredit Nance and preaches against her and the old ways. With the advancing authority of the church, she knows her influence is waning.
Kent has a wonderful talent for taking fragments of historical facts and breathing life into them through her fiction. She has matched her debut with another disturbing and haunting novel.