2016, 380 p.
Literary debuts don’t come much bigger than Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites, the story of the last woman hanged in Iceland in 1829. An international best-seller, recipient of multiple awards, the first of a million dollar two-book contract and optioned for filming: hey, no pressure for the second book! But Hannah Kent has well and truly risen to the challenge with The Good People which I think I enjoyed even more than Burial Rites (my review here).
Although completely self-contained, the two books act as companion pieces to each other. The time frame is similar, but this book is set in rural south-west Ireland in 1825. There might not be the rotting potatoes in the fields of books set in the Irish Famine of 1845, but the sodden, threadbare poverty that underpinned that later catastrophe permeates this book as well. The stone cottages, smoky and candlelit, cling to the mossy sides of the valley, the families inside sharing their beds with kin and their shelter with their domestic animals. Women gather around the well, muttering. The cows are not yielding milk and the butter will not churn. It’s been this way since Nóra Leahy took over the care of her four-year-old grandson Micheál after her own daughter died. Micheál, to our 21st century eyes clearly has a developmental delay that is worsening over time, but for these deeply suspicious villagers, he is ‘fairy’. The real Micheál has been taken, his grandmother believes, with a changeling left in his place. When Nóra’s husband suddenly dies, the burden of caring for this screaming, drooling, limp child becomes too much and so she engages fourteen-year-old Mary from a neighbouring fair. Mary, who takes on the burden of the vomit, piss and saliva, comes to love the child as his widowed and grieving grandmother’s heart hardens against him as she becomes increasing convinced that ‘it’ is not her Micheál but instead, a fairy changeling. Nóra enlists the assistance of Nance, the old, marginalized woman on the edge of the village who, as well as having the knowledge of herbs, charms and cures, also knows The Good People- a euphemism for the fairies.These fairies are not Disney’s Tinkerbell. They are a continual parallel presence, congregating in secret places, fighting, dancing, with a power of their own.
Within three pages, this book had me hooked. The tone is formal and slightly archaic, with the dialogue unusual enough to reinforce that we are in a different world, but without lapsing into caricature. It is clearly deeply researched and, as a result, Kent has built up a self-contained folk world, where there is no division between the supernatural and the natural. It rings absolutely true. As a historian, this is historical fiction at its best: authentic to the mindset of the time, with no 21st century sensibility clumping in with heavy boots to make judgments about right and wrong. Certainly, like Burial Rites, the book reflects the intersection of gender and class in shaping (and mis-shaping) women’s lives, but this is an analytic frame outside the story. The history that underpins the book is true to its own internal logic.
I have one quibble only. In the court scene, one of the accused was cross-examined in the witness box: under British law at the time, the accused could make a statement but generally did not do so. The accused was not expected to condemn him/herself- instead, the court needed to be convinced of ‘character’ rather than a chain of events. Reading Kent’s own explanation for how she came across the story and her use of the scant primary sources about it, I wonder if perhaps the original newspaper reports were ambiguous.
I very much enjoyed this book, the tension of the scenario and the richness of the folk-world that she establishes so securely. Excellent.
Source: Yarra Plenty Regional Library (and I must take it back right now for the 95 other people who are on the waiting list!)
My rating: A solid 10/10.
I have added this review to the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2016 page.