October 2016

Noted

‘The Good People’ by Hannah Kent

By Helen Elliott
Picador; $32.99

Hannah Kent had surprising popular success with her first novel, Burial Rites (2013), which described a notorious murder in Iceland in 1828. In her second novel, The Good People, Kent uses the same modus operandi, whereby she takes a well-documented historical incident – in this case two women accused of murdering a child in rural, mid-1820s Ireland – and from there puts into play her gift of historical empathy.

Once again it is the women, their hard physical existences and intense interior lives, who interest Kent. Nóra and Martin have an unusually harmonious marriage. They make a meagre income from their scrap of land and through labouring for others. Their grief over their only daughter’s death has been bearable because of the strength they find in each other. But when Martin dies suddenly, Nóra, proud and reticent, has to bear the shock of her new position as widow as well as the loss of the man who had defined her centre. She must also take on sole care of her grandson.

The opening chapters cover Martin’s wake and serve as an introduction to the grim community. Grim because agricultural labourers scratch a living from the dirt, live cheek-by-jowl with their animals and pay hard-earned dues to the landed gentry. Kent is brilliant at wretchedness; human potential will not flourish here. She suggests that we are all shaped by geography as much as anything else.

Nóra’s grandson has deteriorated since birth and now cannot speak or walk. Declared to be an idiot by the abominable doctor and more abominable clergyman, the boy becomes Nóra’s shame. She believes he is a changeling, a child substituted by faeries when they – the Good People – steal a real child. Nóra, grieving, ignorant, humiliated, seeks help from Nance Roche, a woman intimate with magic and the Good People. She also hires a superstitious girl, Mary, to live with her and help look after the boy. Mary is a strong sketch in the long, maiming effect of poverty, just as Nance is a portrait of an intelligent but powerless woman doing what she must to survive.

Kent, a natural writer with a talent for metaphor, has military command of her research. The Good People might be Wuthering Heights gothic without the psychological speed, a novel in black and grey, but for those who enjoy slow-burning melodrama and their history re-enacted in hi-res minutiae, this will please.

Helen Elliott
Helen Elliott is a literary journalist and writer.

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