The Good People by Hannah Kent, Picador, ISBN 978-1-74353-490-8, 386pp Hannah Kent is the Australian author of “Burial Rites” an excellent if somewhat bleak book set in northern Iceland in the early nineteenth century. I looked at her website which refers to a podcast of her being interviewed by Richard Fidler. The podcast, to which I listened, is part of a series on ABC called “Conversations with Richard Fidler” (broadcast on 27 September 2016). The coversation is now online at ABC Radio, and can also be downloaded here, or as a podcast here. She is a remarkable and erudite young woman and she has clearly done serious research for this book, as she did for her previous book.
I also recently read Thomas Keneally’s “Crimes of the Father” and I was very tempted to review the two books side by side. Both books deal with the implications of a belief system that holds that “there is a superhuman [… or extrahuman …] order that is not the product of human whims or agreements.” (The definitional quote is from Yuval Noah Harari’s excellent “ A Brief History of Mankind”). In the case of Keneally’s book the belief system is Roman Catholicism. In Kent’s book there is a part for Roman Catholicism but the central belief system, Irish folklore, is about the Good People referred to in the title. In the end I decided not to compare and contrast the two books because the basic subject matter of “Crimes of the Father” is very different to the subject of Kent’s book.
The Good People are fairies that inhabit a place that is neither heaven nor hell. They are referred to as “Good People” out of respect; this is the superstition that if you call them out for what they are, then there will be adverse and unfortunate consequences. Many societies have asserted the existence of similar beings. In the podcast, Kent refers to certain Australian aboriginal societies whose folklore includes “little people”. These superstitions arise, of course, to explain or make sense or events that cannot be explained by observation.
The central character of the book is Nance Roche. She is a woman who has “the knowledge”. This means that she understands the ways of the fairies and knows which plants and herbs are most effective in which situation. There was an incredibly complex set of superstitions that must have been extremely difficult to live with. There are two other main characters. The first is Nora Leahy who has lost both a husband and a daughter in the same year. She is left with a grandchild who is incapacitated in some way. She hires a maid, Mary, to help look after the child which will not settle, cannot walk but yet eats ravenously. Listening to Hannah Kent’s podcast I learned that having a child that was not “normal” was a serious embarrassment. Such children were frequently held to be changelings; the fairies had swapped the healthy child for the unhealthy child. The Widow Leahy turns to Nance Roche to help swap back the changeling while Mary is a somewhat conflicted participant in the events that follow.
The book is based on a case tried in Tralee in County Kerry in June 1826. The outcome is unexpected so don’t read the author’s note at the end before you have read the book. The juxtaposition of folklore and Roman Catholicism is interesting and Kent explores this in the podcast (which I recommend you do after reading the book). For me one of the most interesting and telling quotes from the book is when the priest, Father Healy, says “I can’t be tolerating superstitious belief upheld over true faith.” That quote is another reason why I saw the overlap between Kent’s and Keneally’s books.
If you have read “Burial Rites” then you will recognise the bleak and unremittingly harsh existence that people lived in earlier times. If you haven’t read it then I am sure Kent’s brilliance as a writer and a user of language will make you want to read it. But either way, this is a book you should read and think about.