What’s it about?
It begins with a series of unexplainable events. In rural Ireland in 1825, Nóra is mourning the unexpected deaths of her daughter and husband. She takes in her four-year-old grandson, Michaél, who by some mysterious happenings, can no longer walk or talk. Rumours start to swell that it is the boy responsible for the goings on, that he is no boy but a changeling. Nóra will do anything to save him, but the line between reality and folklore starts to blur.
Hannah Kent certainly has an affinity for the quietly tragic. Her first novel, Burial Rites, is the story of the last woman to be executed in Iceland, and won all sorts of aclaim. It was what made me pick up this novel; if this book contained half of the compassion, the bittersweet inevitability of fate of her début, then I wanted to read it.
This book was inspired by the real life story of Anne Roche, a female ‘doctress’ in nineteenth century Ireland. Kent happened upon her in a newspaper while researching Burial Rites and built a narrative around Roche’s story. A meticulously researched narrative, I might add. That’s really the backbone of Kent’s writing; her attention to the most minute detail. While reading this I was struck, and fascinated by, the sheer depth of knowledge of contemporary rural folklore and medicine. In all honesty, it’s possibly worth reading for the social history alone.
Yet that is not the only reason to pick up this book. As a study of human suffering, it is powerful. Nóra is desperately to get her grandson back from the fairies, the Good People. She knew him as a healthy child, walking and starting to talk, so the mess of skin and bones that is brought to her doorstep is irreconcilable with her memory. When normal cures fail her- the expensive doctor from Killarney, the local priest all come up short- the only options left to her are the old ways.
The methods Nóra employs to rid herself of the changeling are hard to read at times- at one point she whips him with stinging nettles- and inspire an odd mix of emotions. The futility of her actions is clear, but at the same time the reader can empathise with Nóra’s yearning to understand why this has happened, and how to get her grandson back. There is a deep rooted human need for answers and reasons behind this story.
Kent uses this to brilliant effect throughout the book; a woman is delivered of a stillborn baby in one scene. There is no outward cause of this, so answers are sought in the neighbourhood events: the pregnant woman knelt by Nóra’s husband’s death bed; the midwife forgot her St Brigid-blessed swaddling cloth; a barren woman entered the delivery room. It is this swirling of rumour and gossip that fuels Nóra’s desire to ‘cure’ her grandson, and ultimately, what fuels her undoing.
Would I recommend it?
Yes. It’s an intense read, and it may move a little slowly for some, but the power of the writing here is second to none.
The Good People by Hannah Kent is published by Picador priced £8.99.