Australian novelist tackles Irish folklore

A Book Review by Renée Huish 

Hannah Kent: The Good People, Picador/Pan Macmillan, Australia, 2016.9781743534908

ISBN: 9781743534908

RRP: $32.99 (trade paperback); $12.99 ebook.

Australian writer Hannah Kent sets her second novel  The Good People in south west Ireland, in the countryside on the River Flesk, near Killarney. It was in researching her first award winning novel Burial Rites, that she came across the inspiration for this second novel.

There are many similarities between the books. Both are set in the early nineteenth century. In both women are accused of murder, and both concern a clash between ancient cultural beliefs and the reigning Christian Church.

Following the death of her only child Johanna, Nora and her husband take over care of their only grandchild Micheal, who is four years old. Although having thrived to the age of two, Micheal has been stricken by an illness and loses the ability to walk, speak, or assist himself in any way.

As autumn slips into winter Nora’s husband dies suddenly of a heart attack. Because this sudden death takes place in a nearby rath, or fairy ring, the ancient beliefs and portents of the people are given full rein. Nora becomes convinced that Micheal is a changeling and is the cause of all her misery. Her secretiveness about his condition fuels local gossip to catastrophic proportions. In this rugged, mountainous countryside the night comes early and lingers into late morning. Imagine sixteen hours of darkness, couple this with howling winds, intense cold and, invariably, pouring rain. Survival is an ongoing battle and poor crops become the difference between life and death.

Nora seeks help, for company and to look after the child, and walks to the fair in Killarney to find a girl. Mary is fourteen years old, far from home and required to work to help support a poor family, with many younger siblings. It is not until they return to Nora’s cottage that Mary learns of the disability of the child.

To Irish readers the title The Good People may not immediately resonate. Most would be more familiar with the traditional title of Daoine Sidh, or the Little People. Nance, a woman of advanced years and reputed to be in touch with these beings is the local healer and finds herself in conflict with the new priest, Father Healy. Historically miraculous powers were often ascribed to the Catholic clergy with some being referred to as ‘priest healers’.  Neither the Killarney doctor nor the priest have offered any solutions other than telling her it is the will of God. It is Nance who is enlisted by Nora to exorcise the changeling and return her real grandson to her.

Kent has set herself a daunting task in seeking to portray the complex age old traditions of an ancient culture. By dividing the book into twenty chapters, each with the name of a herb or plant, she illustrates how Nance employs the attributes of each plant in the healing process. It is doubtful that this range would have been accessible at the same time in that geographic area, especially at that time of year.  Traditionally, healers had access to a range of healing herbs and plants but few, if any, would have the cornucopia of knowledge ascribed to Nance. The scale of this task for the author could be likened to an outsider endeavouring to convey an understanding of the ancient healing powers and wisdom employed by the traditional owners of Australia.

I found that the book dragged somewhat, particularly in all the treatments applied to Micheal. The mood of the story is one of unrelenting misery.  The broader district community is mainly malevolent, ignorant and lacking in all human understanding. There were three minor exceptions. It was difficult to maintain a sense of belief  in an environment where everyone was minding each other’s business and the priest’s spies were about, that the strange nocturnal rituals engaged in by the three women, and the hapless child, had gone undetected and without interference.

Perhaps the success of her first book put pressure by her publishers on Kent to produce a second book quickly. It may have served this book and the undoubted talent of the writer better had we waited a bit longer for this second novel, an had it been subject to a more rigorous editing process.

Renée Leen Huish

Renée is a native of Galway with unbroken family ancestry in Galway and North Kerry. She is a former History teacher and occasional contributor to Tinteán.