Few debuts have garnered as many accolades as Burial Rites, so if “second novel syndrome” is a real thing, it must apply doubly for Australian author Hannah Kent. Thankfully we’ve not had to wait long for Kent’s second novel — no decade-long interlude á la Donna Tartt — and it’s every bit as immersive as its predecessor. The Good People is a sparkling examination of Irish folk medicine and a lapsed belief system, and what happens when the real world – cold, stark reality – intercedes with these once-cherished folk traditions.
Set in south-west Ireland in the year 1825, tragedy unites three women together, and instigates an irreparable expedition that will challenge their beliefs, and see them clash against contemporary ideals. The tragedy in question centres around Nóra Leahy, who has lost her daughter and her husband in the same year. She is now burdened with the care of her four-year-old son, Micheál, who is severely disabled, both physically and intellectually. Micheál cannot walk or speak, and Nóra, knowing what will be said about the child, keeps him hidden from those who might consider his nature the evidence of otherworldly interference — touched by Them, the Good People.
Unable to cope on her own, Nóra hires a teenage servant girl, Mary, who quickly learns what sections of the community are saying about Nóra’s grandson: he is the cursed creature at the epicentre of their town’s grief. And in such circumstances, there is only one person they can turn to for help; one person who can force Them from Micheál, and return the young boy to his true self: Nance Roche, a woman with ‘the knowledge,’ who consorts with Them, and has demonstrated her healing abilities before. But her neighbours grow increasingly weary of Nance; the town’s new priest, in particular, is vehemently against her practices, and is gradually twisting the people’s opinion of her. Nance is determined to heal Micheál and prove her abilities to the township.
As with Burial Rites, the true genius of The Good People is Kent’s massaging of history — her many months of gruelling research — into her narrative. The Good People is layered with historical accuracy, bringing to life countless Irish customs without ever becoming bogged down in the verisimilitude. The plot is straightforward — the trio of women hurtle towards a conclusion most readers will anticipate but won’t be able to turn away from — and the characters, and their choices, will resonate long after you’ve put the book down.
Indeed, The Good People is a novel that will leave you marvelling at long-forgotten Irish customers and traditions, and have you question how the religious beliefs of today intercede with mankind’s increasingly practical and scientific nature. Kent’s artistry is that she needn’t tangibly pose the question; it’s the nuanced message of her novel, which will be enjoyed, and cherished, purely for its narrative alone.
Readers will inevitably ask, “Is it better than Burial Rites?” But I’m not sure it’s a question I can honestly answer. They’re both standouts; wonderful novels by an author with the world at her feet. The Good People boasts beautiful prose coupled with a brutal landscape and memorable characters. It’s a real literary treat.