I thought Hannah Kent wrote superbly in her debut novel BURIAL RITES but if anything she has improved here. There’s less floweriness of language and thought, and if possible her descriptions are even more evocative. In a way though I suppose that skill is part of the problem: we are given a such a strong a sense of what it might have been like in 1825 living in a cold, crumbling hut in some remote Irish valley surrounded by ignorance and fear that it’s difficult to feel anything but wretched as a result. Kent has created a world in which pagan folklore and Catholicism co-exist uneasily but which between them provide the framework by which people live their daily lives. Personally I find both sets of strictures equally absurd but Kent has created a world in which these beliefs are a constant and meaningful presence for the people within it.
For me though Kent’s research is too present. I know this kind of novel relies on accurate and authentic-seeming historical details; it’s one of the main reasons I read them. But there has to be a balance between that and the advancement of story or characters. Otherwise we may as well read non-fiction. Here I don’t think the balance was achieved. There’s just too much detail of fairy lore and which herbs produce what health or spiritual outcome for me. At the same time there is precious little development of the three main characters. Widow Nóra Leahy, Nance Roche the local ‘nanny’, and Mary Clifford, a young girl Nóra hires to help her look after her grandson Micheál, do not really change at all from novel’s beginning to end. And the story didn’t have an element to draw me in and demand my attention throughout. That shouldn’t be true because at its core is a child in peril but, perhaps because the story is never his but rather that of the people around him, that drama did not engage me as it ought to have.
And I keep coming back to the fact that the book is almost nothing but unrelenting misery. It opens with the unexpected death of Martin Leahy and things go downhill from there. Martin’s widow Nóra is already grieving the death of her adult daughter earlier in the year and now she is left alone to care for four-year Micheál. The boy is unable to walk, talk or feed himself and cries and screams enough to induce madness in those around him as they suffer from a lack of sleep and lack of means to soothe him. As the book progresses Nóra becomes convinced she has care of a changeling; that her real grandson was ‘swept’ by the ‘Good People’ (or fairies) and she grows ever more desperate to reverse the procedure with the help of Nance and her increasingly bizarre (and cruel) ‘cures’. This horror plays out against a backdrop of dreary weather, subsistence living and a series of grim misfortunes that befall the community’s other residents. Again this is familiar territory for historical fiction but here the misery becomes overwhelming which does not have the be the case. Kent’s first novel BURIAL RITES is no cheerier on the surface and Geraldine Brooks’ YEAR OF WONDERS (one of my all-time favourite novels) has an equally grim setting but those books manage to offer a tonal light and shade that is missing from THE GOOD PEOPLE.
The last quarter of the book is actually pretty decent as far as story goes because action moves to a nearby town and there is a court proceeding at which some of the elements I feel Kent was trying to tease out throughout the novel are finally laid bare. The tension between genuine knowledge and ignorant superstition being the most obvious. However this level of structure and plot development arrived a bit late to make the book entirely successful for me.
There’s no doubt that Kent is a talented writer with a gift for creating evocative settings. I did not find THE GOOD PEOPLE as engaging as I did her previous novel because the minute details of folklore and herbalism left me yawning and the characters did not speak to me in the way I like them to do. But I can certainly appreciate the skills Kent brings to the table and will happily read whatever she writes next.
This is book 20.5 that I’ve read and reviewed for the fifth Australian Women Writers Challenge (one book was written by a father daughter team so I’m only counting it as a half). For more information about the challenge check out my challenge progress, sign up yourself or browse the Challenge’s database of reviews.
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Publisher Pan Macmillan 
Length 380 pages
Book Series standalone