My rating: 4 stars
Hannah Kent takes the reader to a world full of superstition, rituals and folklore in The Good People. The story being told focuses on how some individuals struggle to accept those who are perceived as abnormal, and end up allowing pagan superstitions to guide their actions, as there is a lack of scientific knowledge, which possibly would have enlightened their search for answers.
The year is 1825. In rural Ireland, Nóra’s husband collapsed and died while digging ditches. This was the second death in her family in a short period of time. Her daughter, Johanna, had died a few months before, and, from then on, her four-year-old son, Micheál, had been living with Nóra. He couldn’t speak nor walk since his mother had fallen ill, and was also extremely skinny and underdeveloped for his age. Nóra kept trying to hide Micheál from the preying eyes of her neighbours to avoid gossip about his condition. People believed him to be a changeling, a fairy.
When neighbours and family members gather at Nóra’s cabin to pay their respects after her husband’s death, we have a first glimpse of a world full of rituals and superstition. Nance was among those who went to the cabin to take part in the keening, a traditional form of vocal lament for the dead. She was a kind of handy woman, who some people believed dealt with the fairies. The town’s inhabitants resorted to her to solve health issues, for aid when delivering babies and when people died.
“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. She was a pagan chorus. An older song.”
Nóra’s way of dealing with her grief feels authentic. The pain of losing both her only daughter and her husband was overwhelming and devastating, leading to thoughts she recognised as shameful. She resented Michaél for being alive, while the others were dead. Her actions towards her grandson were at times extremely cruel, being used as a way to exceptionally portray the desperation she was feeling.
After being advised to do so, Nóra decided to hire a girl to help her through Winter. She went to the November hiring fair and returned home with Mary, a 14-year-old girl who ended up showing more kindness to Michaél than the majority of the other characters. Nevertheless, she didn’t do everything she could for him, maybe because of her young age.
With time even Nóra believed Michaél to be a changeling and not her real grandson, who she thought had been taken away by the fairies. With the help of Nance, she embarked on a mission full of dangerous rituals to get her real grandson back.
Throughout the book, the fairies are referred to as the ‘Good People’. However, the title may also be an invitation for the reader to think about the concept of goodness in people. What is a good person? Can good people be capable of evil actions?
“Nóra had always believed herself to be a good woman. A kind woman. But perhaps, she thought, we are good only when life makes it easy for us to be so. Maybe the heart hardens when good fortune is not there to soften it.”
The old pagan traditions of the community were not deemed acceptable by the catholic priest. Father Healy confronted Nance about her fairy talk and asked her to stop spreading both her believe in them and the keening. He saw her as a charlatan. But she countered that he was the one charging to hear people’s sins, while she only accepted gifts.
In various chapters, we are given an overview of the town’s daily life, the attitudes of the inhabitants and how their way of living was filled with superstition. Although such information is important for the reader to understand the mind-sets of that time period, the characters’ actions and conversations ended up feeling repetitive at times.
The outcome of the main characters’ actions didn’t surprise me, maybe because the blurb on the back of the book gives a bit too much away in my opinion. But the way in which their beliefs are conveyed, via an exposition of their internal thoughts, made The Good People to be an absorbing, though sombre, read (my last one in 2017).