The Good People

Hannah Kent

 
The Good People
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The Good People

Hannah Kent

In the year 1825, in a remote valley lying between the mountains of south-west Ireland, near the Flesk river of Killarney, three women are brought together by strange and troubling events.

The fires on the hills smouldered orange as the women left, pockets charged with ashes to guard them from the night. Watching them fade into the grey fall of snow, Nance thought she could hear Maggie’s voice. A whisper in the dark.

“Some folk are born different, Nance. They are born on the outside of things, with a skin a little thinner, eyes a little keener to what goes unnoticed by most. Their hearts swallow more blood than ordinary hearts; the river runs differently for them.”

Nora Leahy has lost her daughter and her husband in the same year, and is now burdened with the care of her four-year-old grandson, Micheal. The boy cannot walk, or speak, and Nora, mistrustful of the tongues of gossips, has kept the child hidden from those who might see his deformity evidence of otherworldly interference.

Unable to care for the child alone, Nora hires a fourteen-year-old servant girl, Mary, who soon hears the whispers in the valley about the blasted creature causing grief to fall upon the widow’s house.

Alone, hedged in by rumour, Mary and her mistress seek out the only person in the valley who might be able to help Micheal. For although her neighbours are wary of her, it is said that old Nance Roche has the knowledge. That she consorts with Them, the Good People. And that only she can return those whom they have taken…

Review

Hannah Kent’s second novel, The Good People, is based on a true story, as was her bestselling and much-lauded debut novel, Burial Rites. Both are engrossing works of historical fiction that bring to life little-known stories of real women and the communities in which they live.

The Good People is set in 1825 in a relatively isolated small village in south-west Ireland, near Killarney, on the Flesk river. After the death of her daughter and then, mere months later, her husband, Nora Leahy is left to care for her four-year-old grandson alone. Once a thriving toddler, by the time he came into her care the child was a drastically altered being – he can no longer walk, speak or interact. Fearful of the villagers’ reaction, Nora keeps him hidden from all but her closest associates and the girl she has hired to help her care for him, fourteen-year-old Mary.

As a particularly hard winter and a spate of misfortunes increase tension in the small community, ill-will breeds and Nora becomes increasingly desperate. When neither priest nor doctor will help, Nora turns to the resident wise woman, Nance, for a traditional cure. The measures to which the women resort in their pursuit of the restoration of the child’s vitality begin to arouse suspicion and the ardent disapproval of the new priest, and events escalate from there.

The Good People is a heart-rending parable about ignorance and fear that is convincing in its portrayal of nineteenth-century rural Ireland, and yet also alarmingly reminiscent of issues rife in our own society today. Fear of that which cannot be explained, and of difference, produces questionable behaviours even now. Kent has written a timeless story of human frailty and a gripping period drama.


Elke Power is the editor of Readings Monthly.

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