From the outset, I did not want to compare this book to Hannah Kent’s first. Burial Rites was an incredible book that I recommended it to anyone who would listen: stunning, overwhelming, lush, and painful. It was just so very good I knew I had to contain expectations for The Good People. But this book is remarkable too: heartbreaking and infuriating and beautiful and a great read. Nóra has lost her husband and daughter in the space of a year and is left caring for her grandson Micheàl, a boy who is not as he should be. Deformed and squalling, always consuming but never growing, Nóra hires servant girl Mary and together they weather the whispers, gossip and fear around the “changeling” boy. A perfect storm of ignorance and suspicion whips up a compulsive, incredible and unsettling plot.
It’s 1825, in an isolated Irish village, where knowledge is supplanted by religious doctrine, fairy tales and scurrilous gossip. It is deeply engrossing historical fiction. The poverty is so stark, sustenance relies on enough hands to do the work and a good season, and the days are full of physical labour. This is the unquestioned, necessary reality of life here: hand to mouth. What little space there is is filled with drink, storytelling and ritual; sometimes all three together. There are Little People in the woods, places to avoid, spirits that can bewitch, curses cast. The myths are a fact of life just like the cow needing milking first thing every morning, and it is woven into their interactions with the world.
The sensory elements of life here are just so immediately apparent – and it’s not just the blue of the sky or the blossoming of flowers Kent’s poetic eye is turned to, it is the damp and the pain and the suffering, all written with the same sensitivity and respect. The thing is, in this world, even the darkness, dirt and stink, Kent’s lyrical writing builds scenes of breathtaking beauty. Even as Nóra looks over her dead husband’s body, broken by grief:
“Easing herself down onto the bed, Nóra touched her forehead against Martin’s cheekbone and felt the cold of his stubbled skin. Pulling his coat over the both of them, she closed her eyes and her lungs emptied of air. Pain descended with the weight of water and she felt that she was drowning. Her chest shuddered, and she was crying into her husband’s collarbone, into his clothes reeking of the earth and cow shit and the soft sweet smell of the valley air and all the turf smoke it carried on an autumn evening. “
Ignorance, storytelling and religious fervour create a harsh reality for this small family. It doesn’t matter how beautiful Kent’s writing is, it’s still painful to read. Nóra and Mary hide Micheàl away, buffered by gossip. The widow is almost disabled by grief and is constantly, endlessly, month after month besieged by this eternally needy boy. He is not what he was, and he shows nothing of the husband and daughter she so recently lost. Convinced he is one of the Little People, Nóra allows only the local wise woman Nance in and her combination of herbal medicine and belief in magic, the boy is subjected to an increasingly painful series of trials, tests and treatments.
To the modern reader this is distressing reading knowing that whatever Micheàl has developed would today be more humanely treated or managed. But a tragic combination of sheer desperation and ignorance lead to uniformed, drastic treatments to get the real boy back. However even more distressing is the religious intervention by the local priest, providing neither comfort nor assistance, but a bulling into stoicism. It is a grim world, filled with everyday tragedies.
To present the realities of life with such sensitivity and sensory detail makes this book a wonder. It is a beautiful piece of work, historical fiction to both learn from and feel. Kent is an incredibly talented writer who does not just have a good eye, but a keenly felt sense of humanity as well as wonder at the natural world. Combined, these make Kent’s books real great works.