Hannah Kent’s latest offering, The Good People, is a continuance of her culturally expansive and erudite work following her award winning first novel Burial Rights. It is an imaginative exposition of the pagan superstitions of ancient Ireland colliding with the new normal of an expanding Christian faith.
Following the death of her daughter and, subsequently, her husband, Nora Leahy is enveloped in grief and left with the care of her grandchild, a previously lively and bright child, suffering from unexplained loss of faculties and unable to walk or talk. Nora hires a servant girl to help care for the child as their valley’s fortunes decline.
As with her previous work, Hannah explores the ways in which people manage in the worst of situations and how spirituality and religion gild the edges of human lives. Throughout the narrative, we encounter repeated references and recollections of ‘The Good People’, fairies by any other name, who steal people to dance with them under the hills. Not good enough for Heaven, but not bad enough for Hell, when tragedy befalls the valley, rumour abounds, and the Good People are often suspected.
Despairing of her grandchild, Nora suspects the boy has been ‘swept’ by the Good People. Turning to the only person she believes will help and encounters incomprehensible consequences. It’s not a new notion, a woman desperate to save a child seeks unconventional help, but the alarming truth is that this book is partially inspired by a real-life case of infanticide.
The historical significance of desperate people citing fairies or the good people as the root cause of their woes is a little known phenomenon. We see it in most cultures in one form or other, spirits, aliens and other paranormal beings stealing away loved ones.
The reader is left to wonder, is this how humanity deals with the darkness in ourselves and in our history?
Beyond the driving force of despair throughout the narrative, The Good People is magnificently written. The landscape of this Irish valley plays its own role and ripples with the foreboding of the disgruntled ‘others’. Braided into the story is a plethora of small quandaries that slowly add up to greater suspicions about the Good People, who they are and why, even with the rapidly expanding Christian church, the people still hold on to the old beliefs, to the fairies.