I absolutely loved Hannah Kent’s debut novel, Burial Rites, and so I was absolutely thrilled to get hold of an early copy of her second novel, The Good People, which will be published in February 2017.
The Good People opens in 1825 with death of Nora Leahy’s husband. Having lost her daughter – her only child – months earlier, this comes as a terrible blow, and she is left to care for her grandson, Micheál, alone. At four years old, Micheál is an unusual child who can neither walk or talk, and Nora thinks it best to keep him hidden away from prying eyes.
Left alone, Nora decides to seek help, and hires fourteen-year-old Mary Clifford as a maid to help look after Micheál and to assist with more mundane tasks. Mary takes pity on the child, but it’s not long before she hears the gossip in the village about him – that he is an ill omen and has brought bad luck to their village. That he is not Nora’s grandson at all, but a changeling, left behind by the Good People.
Nora seeks helps from both a doctor and the church, yet both turn her away, and she is left to seek advice from Nance Roach. Nance is a solitary figure that the villagers go to for cures and remedies to minor ills given her knowledge of herbs and plants. But Nance is a strange character who is said to possess “the knowledge”, and it is said that she can curse those who offend her, and that she can bring back those who have been taken by the Good People.
Whenever I read a novel by an author whose other work I’ve particularly enjoyed, I always have a sense of trepidation that the novel I’m about to start won’t quite live up to my expectations. I needn’t have worried with The Good People, however – whilst this is quite a different novel to Burial Rites, I think that it is just as good, and I was pleased that Kent had done something different, rather than sticking to a successful formula.
As with Burial Rites, the characterisation is first class, and all three women – Nora, Nance and Mary – are all beautifully written with their own individual voices and back stories. Whilst I didn’t always agree with their actions or motives, I did feel sympathy for all three women, albeit it in different ways. Mary is so young (although often comes across as mature for her age) that she gets swept up in the schemes of the two older and supposedly wiser women, and Nora has been through so much in losing her daughter and her husband in such a short space of time. And Nance is trying to help, albeit it in strange and misguided ways.
Kent has clearly done extensive research for this novel, and I loved her descriptions of the rural Irish setting and the lives of the villages, and her evocation of time and place is enhanced by the occasional use of Irish proverbs. Her research into the folklore of the time also shines through, as does the herblore that Nance uses in her treatments and I found both of these elements to be absolutely fascinating.
Juxtaposed with the folkloric elements is religion. By this time, traditional beliefs were on the decline, although still prominent in rural communities. I found it interesting that people don’t seem to believe in one or the other, but are quite happy to acknowledge both God and the Good People in their day to day lives. Except for Father Healy, that is, the new priest who takes against Nance and the traditional beliefs that she stands for. In some ways, I was reminded of The Essex Serpent, in the way that superstition and religion are pitted against each other.
With The Good People, Kent has proven herself as an exceptionally talented writer who can work with a variety of scenarios and settings to produce beautifully written novels that are full of the most captivating prose. She is now up there with my favourite authors and I can’t wait to see whatever she turns her hand to next.
The Good People will be published by Picador on 9 February 2017. Many thanks to Kate Green for providing a copy for review.