“You know what they say, woman? The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.”
“And the road to Heaven is well signposted, Father…” Nance smiled. “But badly lit at night.”
This, for me, sums up the essence of Hannah Kent’s latest novel, ‘The Good People‘. It’s a novel about three women, all with the best of intentions, who will end up questioning everything they have ever known as they become embroiled in a changing world caught between folklore and faith.
County Kerry, Ireland, 1825. Nóra Leahy, bereft after the sudden death of her husband, finds herself struggling alone with the care of her young grandson Micheál. Once a thriving, happy boy, Micheál cannot now walk or speak. As her neighbours begin to whisper of ill-fortune and the cows cease their milk, talk turns to the Good People – the faerie folk – and rumours of Micheál’s true nature abound. Confused and desperate, Nóra turns to two women – young Mary Clifford, who will act as nurse to Micheál, and elderly Nance Roche, the local doctress who understands that there is magic in the old ways. But trying to help Micheál will lead the women on a dangerous path and into conflict with the world both inside and outside the valley.
This is a work of fiction, although it is based on real life events and is clearly impeccably researched. As with Kent’s previous novel, ‘Burial Rites‘ (which is brilliant by the way), there’s a real sense of immediacy in her depiction of rural village life and of the inherent beliefs and assumptions that make up local culture, belief and custom. And, more so than in Burial Rites, this is a novel that really focuses on belief. There are, without a doubt, two belief systems in the novel – that of the Church and an older, more naturalistic belief that includes herbal medicine, blessings, curses and the faerie folk. Both are strongly felt in Nóra’s community and the balancing of the two in daily life was an aspect of the novel that I found absolutely fascinating.
As with ‘Burial Rites’, Kent also manages to make very difficult characters sympathetic and engaging. Nóra is a challenging woman – lonesome, prone to melancholy and often bitter about her situation – but the reader is never left in any doubt that she is grieving profoundly for her husband, her daughter and, in her own way, for Micheál. Nance could so easily be portrayed as a predatory vagrant, preying on people’s desperation however she’s also shown to be wise in herb lore and the only genuine option available when the priest won’t help and the doctor is a luxury that the villagers are unable to afford. Mary, although less vivid, is an ideal way in for the reader and we share in her confusion, her anger and her angst over the nature of Micheál’s ailment and the best course of action needed to help him.
Because, ultimately, this is a novel with a terrible and tragic outcome. I don’t want to give away the central premise completely but I will say that there are trigger warnings here for child abuse. That said, the treatment of Micheál in the novel only ever serves to raise important questions and is never used gratuitously. I was shocked by the callous attitude of the supposedly ‘educated’ doctor and priest, who identify Micheál’s condition as an illness but fail to provide Nóra with any sense of how she can help her grandson other than to tell her it is the will of God and must be endured. It is no wonder that, desperate and confused and surrounded by whisperings in the village, she turns to Nance and ever more extreme measures to cure the boy and see him restored to her. These measures are, in themselves, horrendous but Kent’s skill lies in her ability to encourage the reader to see why her character’s make these decisions and choices. We might not sympathise but it is certainly possibly to empathise with Nóra’s plight.
As one of my ‘5 Star TBR Predictions‘ from back in October, I’m pleased to say this more than lived up to expectations. Combining a compelling narrative with complex characterisation and social commentary, this is an emotional and taught novel. It isn’t the fastest paced but there’s undoubted quality in the writing and a meticulous replication of a time and place now vanished.
‘The Good People‘ by Hannah Kent is published by Picador and is available in paperback, ebook and audio from all good book retailers.