The Good People – Hannah Kent

I am so much behind with reviewing the books I read that I’m still going back to books I read in the summer and fall of 2018, but maybe it is good, for 2018 was, in general, a good year for me.

I bought this book during my crazy book-crawl back in October. As one of over twenty books I got on that day, as you can see, I am slowly chipping away at them. I heard a lot about this one before I got it, a lot of praise, but not really what it is about. Probably I would resist buying it if it wasn’t for the cover, which is one of the most beautiful covers I’ve seen and touched (it does use the texture wisely as well).

The story is based on events that took place in 1825 in county Kerry in a small, poor village. Nóra Leahy lost her daughter and her husband in the same year. She grieves for both of them, but also has to take care of her grandson Micheál. The boy, four years old, cannot walk or communicate and is prone to outbursts of fury. As the year progresses Nóra realizes she will need help with the boy and hires a young Mary Clifford to take care of the child and home chores.

The year is bad and the people in the village cannot make much money from their farming, the cows seem to give less milk, the crops are less, pregnant women lose children. Gradually a word starts spreading that maybe it is because of Micheál, that the baby is a changeling and brings bad luck. Nóra never felt comfortable with the child and gradually she starts believing the gossip. Finally, she takes  Micheál to the local bean feasa, herbalist and healer, Nance Roche. Nance is believed to communicate with the fairies or the Good People, and believes she will be able to restore the real Micheál to his grandmother. The three women start on their dangerous journey, through various ways of expelling the fairies and reclaiming the boy. Every step is more radical than the previous one.

We follow their story and we also get to know the people in the village, a small, conservative and suffocating environment. The new priest is against Nance’s healing practices, deeming them sinful and encouraging the villagers to reject her. As things get worse not only Micheál is blamed but suspicion falls also on Nance. Quickly the situation escalates.

What we get here is the portrait of a community that is small, but not necessarily close-knit, everyone knows everyone but when times are hard they are often ready to turn on one another. When things start getting worse there must be someone it can be blamed on. The old beliefs, the Good People, coexist in people’s minds with catholic religion, add to this lack of education and you have a recipe for disaster.

The book focuses heavily on Nóra’s despair, that leads her to drinking and desperate measures, on Mary who misses her family and strives to go the right thing all the time and on Nance, her whole life the odd one out. Nance’s story is very interesting because she is the outsider. She never married and now that she is getting older, she feels the burden of loneliness and her age and always going against the current of social expectations. She does, however, believe that she can communicate with the Good People, she attained this gift at a great price, so she won’t give it up easily.

It is a story of misery, grief, poverty and tragedy. Kent writing is very good, so good that it is difficult to read without getting depressed by the awful circumstances. In this book there are no good people, there are just people and all of them are flawed.

Photo by Violetta Kaszubowska @vkphotospace.com 

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