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.
Could 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.
Whose 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.