Come Away O Human Child….
Review: The Good People by Hannah Kent
If you were lucky enough to snag one of SwiftLit October Boxes, you are now the proud owner of The Good People by Hannah Kent, an iridescent wonder of a paperback published by Picador this year. The following review does not contain any explicit spoilers, but does reveal some of the context of the plot.
Set in 19th Century Ireland, The Good People is a fascinating mix of history, superstition and ritual. Three peasant woman, Nora, Mary and Nance, seek to heal Nora’s grandson, Michéal, who is believed to have been taken by The Good People, These good people are, of course, the faery people, the sidhe of ancient Ireland. Thankfully, Kent engages in absolutely none of the heavy handed paddywhackery we have come to expect when reading about belief in the sidhe, a tradition spanning centuries in rural Ireland, remnants of which remain to this day. Rather, she deals with the subject matter sensitively; the conflict between religion, ritual and science is captivating yet respectful. As the women struggle through their varying attempts to treat the boy, Michéal’s fate is left in the balance, and the very real consequences of their actions make for an emotional conclusion. It is easy to feel personally involved with Kent’s characters, as she presents their struggle so movingly. Their dogged belief that they are doing the right thing, even when all evidence points to the contrary, is devastating, and the mingling of their sadness and unfailing belief in mysticism is genuinely painful in parts. Yeats’ tale of The Stolen Child casts a long shadow over the plot of this novel, drawing a poignant contrast between the wild magic of the faery people, the tragedy of a lost child, and the horror of a changeling left in its place.
Kent’s characterisation of the land deserves its own praise, as the rural landscape looms in the novel. Her delicately woven world is as familiar as Marita Conlon-McKenna’s famine torn land, and as rich as any of Seamus Heaney’s landscapes. It was very surprising to me that Kent is actually Australian by birth, as her understanding of Irish landscape and ritual is spellbinding. It is very clear that she undertook a great deal of research before embarking on this novel, and her hard work pays off. As the narrative itself is based on a true story, it perhaps should not be so surprising that it feels real, but Kent works hard to strike a perfect balance of supernatural beliefs and reality. Indeed, aside from a few moments of incongruous dialogue, her whole world feels authentic.
I read this novel on one of the sunniest days this year, and finished it in a few hours. It was so thoroughly engaging that I couldn’t tear myself from Nora and Nance for more than a few minutes at a time. Any fans of Emma Donoghue’s The Wonder will enjoy this novel, there are many similarities in plot and setting, although the endings could not be in greater contrast! Kent is a real talent, and I look forward to reading more from her soon.