Books

Hannah Kent
The Good People

The second novel, according to Stephen Fry, is “an act of professional writing. That is why it is so much more difficult.” Difficult second novel syndrome becomes even more acute when the debut work is an award-winning, internationally published bestseller such as Hannah Kent’s stunning Burial Rites (2013).

Her follow-up, The Good People, continues her preoccupation with real historical cases of women forced by terrible circumstances into life-and-death decisions, and the repercussions that befall them. Kent’s remarkable emotional control and sense of place, and her admirable restraint from passing judgement, are just as evident in this book. The voice itself is lush and poetic but – and this is an unfair comparison, by any standard – The Good People doesn’t quite match its predecessor.

The Good People is set in Ireland in 1825. Nóra Leahy’s husband, Martin, dies suddenly, leaving her to care for their grandson, Micheál, who was surrendered to them upon the death of his mother. He’s only four and seemed a normal baby, but there’s something wrong now. He’s unable to speak or walk or communicate; he’s “cretinous” and “ill-thriven”. He screams constantly and can’t control his bladder or his bowel.

As Nóra’s grief and exhaustion overwhelm her, she and her neighbours begin to suspect that Micheál’s condition is not natural. The valley where they live is a nest of superstition and fear. The “Good People”, or fairies, are a constant and real presence in the lives of the villagers and, recently, life has been even harder than usual: cows giving less milk and hens not laying; accidents and illnesses and deaths. Could Micheál be a changeling, a fairy baby substituted for the stolen boy? Nóra is overwhelmed and sinking, so she seeks help from two people: 14-year-old Mary Clifford, a starving girl she’s hired to care for the demanding boy, and Nance Roche, the local wise woman.

Mary is a long way from home, young and struggling. Nance is old and knows “the power in a black-handled knife, in the swarthy, puckering mix of hen dirt and urine, in the plant over the door, the garment worn next to the skin … not only which herbs and plants to cut, but when, and which to pull by hand and which to set a knife to, and which were made stronger by the moist footprints left by saints as they walked the evenings on their holy days, blessing the ground beneath them.” She’s at odds with the new priest, who’s determined to end the village’s un-Christian ways by any means. Can the real Micheál be restored before more tragedy befalls them?

Hunger, cruelty and pain leave their mark. Only young Mary feels any bond with Micheál, “But the child exhausted her in a different way. He tortured her with constant, shrill needfulness. Sometimes it seemed that he screamed his throat raw and no amount of soothing would quiet him. She fed him and he ate like the starved, swallowing thick mouthfuls of potato mixed with milk, and yet he was as thin as winter air.”

Nóra feels “suffocated by the constant neediness of her grandchild. He made her uneasy … she had tried to encourage him to walk, holding him up so that his feet brushed the ground. But he had thrown his red head back, exposing the pale length of his throat and the sharp ridges of his collarbone, and screamed as though she was pressing pins into his heels.”

At its heart, The Good People is a battle between past and present, as the new ways of the church rub against the generations of pagan traditions. Nance can also feel it. “Again, she had the sense that something terrible was happening. That in some irreparable way the world was changing, that it spun away from her, and that in the whirl of change she was being flung to some forsaken corner.”

Will the villagers side with Nance, or against her? After all, “They made her feel like nothing more than a strange old woman plucking herbs, her eyes clouded with age and the smoke of her own badly fired hearth. No matter that some of these men came to her with their carbuncles and congested lungs, or lay their wheezing children by her fire.” Kent does well to prevent Father Healy, the well-fed priest, from being a moustache-twirling villain, but he and the church are unsympathetic all the same.

It’s a fascinating story but a thin one, bulked up by the three points of view of Nóra, Mary and Nance, which occasionally repeat each other. There are huge chunks where the story doesn’t move at all. There’s a very good novel lolling within these pages, however, and even the flab is elegant and interesting: Kent is no literary wunderkind in love with the sound of her own voice. The research is impeccable and convincing but there’s just so much of it. As a sociological study of daily life in those times, it’s an exemplary work and readers at all interested in pagan traditions or herbal medicine will love these sections. There are plenty of historical fiction fans, also, who read for this kind of close and intricate exploration of the lives of the past.

The pace of the story, however, is painfully slow, and the ending, though true to the story and not softened, speeds up alarmingly. Over and over we hear about Nance’s past and Nóra’s state of mind and have descriptions of the valley and references to the fairies and the curses and the herbs and their preparation, long after all these things have been elegantly established. Contrary to accepted wisdom, sometimes novelists need to tell, not show, in order to give a story energy and momentum.

Would I have thought better of The Good People if it had been the work of some unknown debutante, rather than Kent? Very possibly. The weight of unrealistic expectations aside, The Good People exhibits Kent’s command and will doubtless attract readers. I look forward with interest to where she next turns her attention.  LS

Picador, 400pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 1, 2016 as "Hannah Kent, The Good People". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: LS