The Good People by Hannah Kent

A heart-wrenching and beautiful novel.

I loved The Good People by Hannah Kent. It’s an intensely moving and beautifully written tale of Irish rural life in the early 19th century.

The Good People

Blurb:

County Kerry, Ireland, 1825.

NÓRA, bereft after the sudden death of her beloved husband, finds herself alone and caring for her young grandson Micheál. Micheál cannot speak and cannot walk and Nóra is desperate to know what is wrong with him. What happened to the healthy, happy grandson she met when her daughter was still alive?

MARY arrives in the valley to help Nóra just as the whispers are spreading: the stories of unexplained misfortunes, of illnesses, and the rumours that Micheál is a changeling child who is bringing bad luck to the valley.

NANCE’s knowledge keeps her apart. To the new priest, she is a threat, but to the valley people she is a wanderer, a healer. Nance knows how to use the plants and berries of the woodland; she understands the magic in the old ways. And she might be able to help Micheál.

As these three women are drawn together in the hope of restoring Micheál, their world of folklore and belief, of ritual and stories, tightens around them. It will lead them down a dangerous path, and force them to question everything they have ever known.

Based on true events and set in a lost world bound by its own laws, The Good People is Hannah Kent’s startling new novel about absolute belief and devoted love. Terrifying, thrilling and moving in equal measure, this long-awaited follow-up to Burial Rites shows an author at the height of her powers.

My thoughts:

I grew up reading fairy stories but The Good People gives a frighteningly realistic view of what belief in fairies meant to people dealing with sickness, disease, evil and all the things that go wrong in our lives. It’s set in 1825/6, a long gone world of people living in an isolated community, a place where superstition and a belief in fairies held sway. People talk of others being ‘fairy-swept’ or ‘away with the fairies’, and kept with the music and lights, dancing under the fairy hill.

Nóra is overcome with grief when her husband, Martin, died, feeling as though she was drowning and abandoned, completely unable to cope with Micheál, her four-year old grandson. There is talk that he is ‘fairy-struck’, unable to walk or talk and screaming uncontrollably when he is in pain or upset. She needed someone else to help her and so she hired Mary to look after Micheál. But Micheál did not improve and soon she comes to believe that he is a changeling. After both the doctor and the priest are unable to cure Micheál, Nóra appeals to Nance, the valley’s ‘handy woman’ for help.

This is a beautifully written book. It is not a fairy story, but one in which their existence is terrifyingly real to the people of the valley. The villagers believe that the fairies live in Piper’s Grave, ‘the lurking fairy fort’, at the end of the valley, a place where few people went, a neglected and wild place. People see lights there, glowing near a crooked whitethorn tree that stood in a circle of stone. Nance lives in a cabin in front of the wood a short distance from Piper’s Grave and not far from the river. She was the woman they wanted to help them bring their babies into the world, and who was the ‘gatekeeper’ at the end of their lives, the ‘keener’ when they died. She is the person Nance went to believing she could help bring back the little boy she loved.

I loved everything about The Good People, Hannah Kent is an excellent stortyteller. The characters all spring to life, Nóra, Nance and Mary in particular. It’s not a world I know and yet I felt I did, with its mix of characters, old Peg O’Shea, Nóra’s nearest neighbour who helps when she can and the younger men and women who gossip and are quick to blame Micheál for bringing bad luck to the valley and to condemn Nance, who whilst they go to her for cures, also frightens them.

It is a heart breaking story and as it drew to its inevitable end I was really moved by the effect of fear, ignorance and superstition that brought about such a tragedy. The Author’s Note at the end of the book  explains that she drew on a real event from 1826 in writing The Good People. She has researched and listed many works of both fiction and non-fiction and also consulted many historians, curators and academics whilst writing the book.

Many thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for a review copy.

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 3007 KB
  • Print Length: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Picador; Main Market Ed. edition (9 Feb. 2017)

10 thoughts on “The Good People by Hannah Kent”

  1. Excellent review, Margaret. I know it’s not a fairy story but I was reminded of The Goblin Market. I somehow did not realise how very real fairies were to people back then, how interesting. You convinced me to read it so will keep an eye out in the library… I see it’s just out so will make a note in my little book.

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    1. Just popped back to say that Devon library catalogue has one copy (big deal!) which I’ve reserved but there are 3 people ahead of me so I won’t hold my breath.

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      1. I reserved Ed Ball’s book in November and am still waiting for it – one copy available in the county and I have no idea where I am in the reservation list. You may get The Good People first!! I’ll let you know when Speaking Out arrives …

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        1. Quite surprised they only have one copy up there as it’s been rather popular apparently. An amusing fact… it was for sale at the Conservative party conference and they sold out. LOL

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  2. I’m halfway through this book at the moment and loving it so far. The writing is beautiful. I have read Burial Rites and enjoyed that one too, but based on what I’ve read so far, I think this book is even better.

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