Who are The Good People?

Hannah Kent is a master of atmosphere and of extracting her characters’ souls. Her new novel The Good People (Picador, Pan Macmillan Australia) is set in 1825, in a dark and dank Irish valley where, “Mushrooms scalloped out from rotting wood in the undergrowth. The smell of damp soil was everywhere”. The community has a peasant culture of simple rituals governed by the seasons, alliances and health. The effects of petty, and more serious, quarrels are balanced by small daily kindnesses.

good-peopleCould The Good People be shadowing the author’s Burial Rites as the second in a possible trilogy based on true stories about women living in wretched poverty whose fates are controlled by powerful men and others?

In The Good People, Nóra’s husband Martin has died inexplicably at the crossroads. The tale opens with his wake. Nance Roche comes to keen and wail for Martin. She is a “handy woman”, the gatekeeper of the thresholds between the known and unknown who lives in an isolated mossy cabin dug into the mud. She keeps it as clean as she is able, cares for her goat and collects healing herbs. She has inherited “the knowledge” of the Good People, fairy knowledge that cures people from the folk whose lights are seen near the whitehorn trees by Piper’s Grove.

With both her husband and daughter Johanna dead, Nóra is left alone with Micheál, an ill-formed child who can’t speak or walk and continually soils himself. She employs red-haired Mary Clifford from the north to help her care for Micheál. The gossips believe that someone with red hair has the evil eye. Nóra’s daughter also had red hair and some insist she was “swept”, taken by the Good People.

Mary cares for Micheál selflessly but Nóra and Nance believe he is a changeling, a fairy child who has been exchanged for a human child, bringing bad luck on the village. They resolve to “put the fairy out of him”, taking him to be dunked in the river three times.

Superstition escalates when a cow is found dead, chickens are left headless and an egg is filled with blood. Nance is accused of making piseóg, curses, and of poisoning people with her treatments of “bittersweet” and foxglove. And yet she describes the dying year as, “The night was falling holy, as though the glory of God was in the changing of the light”.

Former priest Father O’Reilly protected Nance but the new priest Father Healy preaches against her.

burial-ritesWhose viewpoint is right? Hannah Kent makes us believe in the veracity of the superstitious Nance and Nóra because she has plunged us into their lives and thoughts. But if we extricate ourselves from their powerfully constructed beliefs and peer through the eyes of their opponents, could the latters’ views be equally valid? One of the author’s gifts is to coax us into relinquishing our, perhaps more reasoned, views and to accept those of her protagonists.

The Good People of the title are alluded to but never seen. But are they more or less integral to the story than the human good people we meet: kind neighbour Peg O’Shea and steadfast Peter, as well as the multifaceted major characters? Goodness, grief, mercy and truth are wound with verisimilitude into The Good People.

Review: The Good People by Hannah Kent

9781743534908 (3)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.

Buy the book here…

A Snapshot of Australian YA and Fiction in the USA

The Book ThiefI’ve just returned from visiting some major cities in the USA. It was illuminating to see which Australian literature is stocked in their (mostly) indie bookstores. This is anecdotal but shows which Australian books browsers are seeing, raising the profile of our literature.

Marcus Zusak’s The Book Thief was the most prominent Australian book. I didn’t go to one shop where it wasn’t stocked.

The ABIA (Australian Book Industry) 2014 overall award winner, The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion was also popular. And a close third was Shaun Tan’s inimical Rules of Summer, which has recently won a prestigious Boston Globe-Horn Book picture book honour award. Some stores had copies in stacks.

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I noticed a few other Tans shelved in ‘graphic novels’, including his seminal work, The Arrival – which is newly available in paperback.

All the birds singing

One large store had an Oceania section, where Eleanor Catton’s Man-Booker winner, The Luminaries rubbed shoulders with an up-to-date selection of Australian novels. These included hot-off-the-press Miles Franklin winner All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld and Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites, plus expected big-names – Tim Winton with Eyrie, Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North and works by Thomas Keneally and David Malouf. Less expected but very welcome was Patrick Holland.I chaired a session with Patrick at the Brisbane Writers’ Festival a few years ago and particularly like his short stories Riding the Trains in Japan.

Australian literary fiction I found in other stores included Kirsten Tranter’s A Common Loss, Patrick White’s The Hanging Garden and some Peter Carey.

One NY children’s/YA specialist was particularly enthusiastic about Australian writers. Her store had hosted Gus Gordon to promote his picture book, Herman and Rosie, a CBCA honour book, which is set in New York City. They also stocked Melina Marchetta’s Looking for Alibrandi and Saving Francesca, John Marsden, David McRobbie’s Wayne series (also a TV series), Catherine Jinks’ Genius Squad (How to Catch a Bogle was available elsewhere) and some of Jaclyn Moriarty’s YA. One of my three top YA books for 2013, The Midnight Dress by Karen Foxlee was available in HB with a stunning cover and Foxlee’s children’s novel Ophelia and the Marvellous Boy was promoted as part of the Summer Holidays Reading Guide.

The children of the king

Elsewhere I spied Margo Lanagan’s The Brides of Rollrock Island, published as Sea Hearts here (the Australian edition has the best cover); Lian Tanner’s Keepers trilogy; John Flanagan’s Ranger’s Apprentice and Sonya Hartnett’s The Children of the King. These are excellent books that we are proud to claim as Australian.

Player Profile: Hannah Kent, author of Burial Rites

lowres3Hannah Kent, author of Burial Rites

Tell us about your latest creation…

My debut novel is called Burial Rites, and takes place in Iceland, in the early nineteenth century. It tells the story of Agnes, a servant woman who has been sentenced to death for her role in the brutal murder of two men. In the absence of a prison, she is sent to wait out the time leading to her execution on a northern farm. Horrified to have a convicted murderess in their midst, the family avoid
speaking with Agnes. Only Tóti, the young assistant priest appointed as her spiritual guardian, is compelled to try and understand her. As winter descends and the hardships of rural life force everyone to work side by side, the family’s attitude to Agnes starts to change, until one night, she begins to tell her side of the story, and they realise that all is not as they had assumed.

Burial Rites is actually based on true events. I lived in Iceland when I was a teenager, and heard the story of the murders then. Not only was I fascinated by the crime, but I became very curious about one of the women involved: Agnes. Writing this book was my attempt to more fully understand this mysterious historical figure. Many historical records tend to demonise Agnes, which I disagree with. My motivation to write the book came from a desire to explore her humanity, and her complexity.

Where are you from / where do you call home?

I was raised in the beautiful Adelaide Hills, where I’m now living again after a few years in Melbourne. I loved the inner-city life – the buzz and culture – but there’s something to be said for having a veggie patch, fruit trees, and a lot of wildlife on your doorstep. It’s nice being close to so many wineries too…

burial-ritesWhen you were a kid, what did you want to become?  An author?

I can’t remember not wanting to be an author. I’ve always wanted to write, although I understood from an early age that I’d probably need another job to pay the bills. So, I’d go from wanting to be an author and a teacher, to an author and a geologist, to an author and a doctor – but the aspiration to become an author was constant.

What do you consider to be your best work? Why?

I’m not sure that I’ve written enough to be able to consider what might be best! I’m very proud of my debut novel, Burial Rites, but I’m also looking forward to challenging myself and improving as a writer.

Describe your writing environment to us – your writing room, desk, etc.; is it ordered or chaotic?

I wrote Burial Rites in a converted walk-in wardrobe in Melbourne, and my current office is not too dissimilar! I have a large desk (important for when I need to spread things out) squeezed against a window. I need a source of natural light. There’s a lot of things up on the wall – maps, photos, notes – and I have a few bookshelves close to hand. It’s not too cluttered, but I do have piles of reference books everywhere, which I frequently knock over by accident. I’m quite clumsy.

When you’re not writing, who/what do you like to read?

Whatever is at hand! Whether I’m writing or not, my reading habits remain the same. The only difference is that I might be reading extra material for research when writing. Oh, and I also read more poetry when I’m writing – it reminds me to pay attention to the rhythm of my prose. As for particular genres, I tend to read literary fiction, although occasionally I’ll let someone persuade me into reading a crime novel, or speculative fiction, or fantasy. I’m currently reading a lot of fantastic Irish authors – Emma Donoghue, Colm Toibin. It’s getting me in the spirit to start my next book, which will be set in Ireland.

What was the defining book(s) of your childhood/schooling?

I was a very big reader of Enid Blyton as a child, and ‘Little Women’ was really important to me in my formative years. I went through a stage where I would read it once a month, just because I loved the characters so much. I saw myself in them.

If you were a literary character, who would you be?

A certain six year old in my life recently told me that I’m exactly like Hermione in Harry Potter. He’s probably right. I’m a bit of a know it all, I don’t brush my hair very often, and I could imagine nothing better than spending hours and hours in a library.

Apart from books, what do you do in your spare time (surprise us!)?

I’m learning Swedish at the moment! I like to learn practical skills. I’ll go through a phase of bread baking, then I’ll decide I want to build a worm farm, then I’ll make a lot of jam. I don’t usually admit to it, but I also play the tin whistle, and I’m learning the guitar. I’m not always so industrious though. I do spend a lot of time watching films and frittering hours away on the internet.

What is your favourite food and favourite drink?

That’s a hard one. I’m a big coffee-drinker, and I do love a nice glass of red. Sometimes the simple things can be the best. I can get very enthusiastic about a well-buttered piece of toast.

Who is your hero? Why?

I have many heroes, and all of them are kind, gentle, curious people who make the world a better place through the little acts of compassion they perform every day. None of them are famous. You wouldn’t know them if you saw them. But they’re extraordinary in the way they give to others and lead by example.

Crystal ball time – what is the biggest challenge for the future of books and reading?

Ooh, tough one. I’m not one of those who like to go around prophesying the death of the book. I don’t think humans will ever be able to quench their need for storytelling, nor do I believe we will every stop reading. I do think, however, that it is crucial for bookstores, publishers and authors to evolve and adapt to suit changing technologies and reading habits. Adapt or perish – I think that’s a good motto for these uncertain times we’re in.

Follow Hannah:

Website URL: www.hannahkentauthor.com
Facebook Page URL: https://www.facebook.com/HannahKentAuthor
Twitter URL: https://twitter.com/HannahFKent