‘The Good People’ by Hannah Kent

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 collapses and dies while digging ditches. This is the second death in her family in a short period of time. Her daughter, Johanna, died a few months before, and, from then on, her four-year-old son, Micheál, has been living with Nóra. He hasn’t been able to speak nor walk since his mother fell ill, and is also extremely skinny and underdeveloped for his age. Nóra keeps trying to hide Micheál from the preying eyes of her neighbours to avoid gossip about his condition. People believe 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 is among those who go to the cabin to take part in the keening, a traditional form of vocal lament for the dead. She is a kind of handy woman, who some people believe deals with the fairies. The town’s inhabitants ask for her help to solve health issues, to aid deliver babies and when people die.

“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 is overwhelming and devastating, leading to thoughts she recognises as shameful. She resents Michaél for being alive, while the others are dead. Her actions towards her grandson are at times extremely cruel, being used as a way to exceptionally portray the desperation she feels.

After being advised to do so, Nóra decides to hire a girl to help her through Winter. She goes to the November hiring fair and returns home with Mary, a 14-year-old girl who ends up showing more kindness to Michaél than the majority of the other characters. Nevertheless, she doesn’t do everything she could for him, maybe because of her young age.

With time even Nóra believes Michaél to be a changeling and not her real grandson, whom she thinks has been taken away by the fairies. With the help of Nance, she embarks 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 are not deemed acceptable by the catholic priest. Father Healy confronts Nance about her fairy talk and asks her to stop spreading both her belief in them and the keening. He sees her as a charlatan. But she counters with him being the one charging to hear people’s sins, while she only accepts 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 is filled with superstition. Although such information is important for the reader to understand the mindsets of that time period, the characters’ actions and conversations end 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 an absorbing, though sombre, read (my last one in 2017).

2 thoughts on “‘The Good People’ by Hannah Kent

  1. Amy says:

    I loved The Good People – glad you liked it too! I agree with your criticism about the blurb, although it did make me wonder for a while if it was a red herring leading me down a less expected path. I won’t say more for fear of spoiling the book for anyone else! But oh, I thought Kent’s descriptions were so beautiful, and I liked the slow pacing of it all – it made me feel embedded in the villagers’ slow, steady lives.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Susana_S_F says:

      At first I thought it could be a red herring as well.
      Kent managed to create an atmosphere that really suits the plot! I haven’t read Burial Rites yet, but I’m really curious about it now.

      Liked by 1 person

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