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The Good People by Hannah Kent

BOTTOM LINE: Depressing AF but strangely compelling

Genre: Historical Fiction
Publication Date: 19 September 2017
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Synopsis from the Publisher:

“Based on true events in nineteenth century Ireland, Hannah Kent’s startling new novel tells the story of three women, drawn together to rescue a child from a superstitious community.

Nora, bereft after the death of her husband, finds herself alone and caring for her grandson Micheal, who can neither speak nor walk. A handmaid, Mary, arrives to help Nora just as rumors begin to spread that Micheal is a changeling child who is bringing bad luck to the valley. Determined to banish evil, Nora and Mary enlist the help of Nance, an elderly wanderer who understands the magic of the old ways.

Set in a lost world bound by its own laws, The Good People is Hannah Kent’s new novel about absolute belief and devoted love. Terrifying, thrilling and moving in equal measure, this follow-up to Burial Rites shows an author at the height of her powers.”

My Thoughts: With her second novel, Ms. Kent confirms that she holds no romantic notions about our ancestors and the way they used to live. In fact, one might even get the impression that she relishes in sharing all of the gory details of the time. If anything, one can commend her dedication to providing as realistic a picture of the past as possible, as she completely dispenses with the glorification of the past. I believe it also indicates a lack of bias on her part. In the case of The Good People, it reiterates her theme of absolute belief. Still, there are certain scenes which may make some readers squeamish due to her honesty.

Along the same lines, the other thing her attention to detail provides is the quelling of the notion of a romantic Ireland. The Ireland in her story is what can only be envisioned as the true Ireland. This is not the Ireland of pretty maids, charming folklore, and cozy dances at the pubs. Poverty is rampant, food is scarce, and all it takes is one failed season of butter and egg production for a family to have their house torn down by the landlord and find themselves homeless. Potatoes are the main food source for many living in the country (and we all know what happens there a few decades later). People live in dwellings with their goats and chickens; their roofs are nothing more than straw or sticks and have to be protected from birds. Looking at this from a modern perspective, they are barely surviving, if their way of life could be called surviving. It most definitely was not for the weak.

The time period is also the beginning of the end for old customs and beliefs, a time when the Church starts having more influence on the country and one of the sources of conflict within the novel. Ms. Kent does an excellent job illustrating how ingrained these beliefs were in the remote regions of the country. She shows how people professed their faith in the Church in one breath and in another mention a charm meant to appease the fairies. The belief in both is absolute and so difficult for modern readers to understand, but this does not mean that the people in her novel are less intelligent or quaint. If anything, they show an openness to the unknown that modern society eschews.

The Good People is more than an observation of belief though. It is also a study of humanity when life turns sour, of absolute grief, and jealousy. It is a study of mankind in a remote location still lead by superstition struggling to make ends meet. In addition to the lack of anything remotely pretty or sanitary, Ms. Kent also fails to spare her readers of mankind’s ability to turn on one another when most convenient. It is by no means an easy novel to read. This is mankind at its most raw, scraped bare by need and grief.

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