The Good People by Hannah Kent
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.