I finally ‘read’ Hannah Kent’s novel ‘Burial Rites’ in audio book form. I had avoided novel, really, because of all the hype around it: somehow it came across as a genre-type book because it was based on a gruesome murder, with domestic violence undertones. What Kent did, in fact, write was a wonderfully controlled novel about a particular closed and tight-knit society – 19th century Iceland – in which the ‘truth’ about the murder is slowly revealed as we get to know the thoughtful and sensitive heroine as she is housed with a family awaiting her execution. The novel was based on a real story that Kent came across in her research.
One of the most amazing things about ‘Burial Rites’ was Kent’s ability to absolutely recreate the everyday life of rural Iceland, capturing the small rhythms of the day and year, and the quiet, subtle interrelations of the characters.
The quite staggering thing about ‘The Good People’ is that Kent has done the exact same thing but this time set in Ireland in 1825. The novel is set in a rural valley, where except for going to the nearest market town to sell their butter and eggs, the people live out the grind on their small landholdings – but of course, they don’t own the land but rent it. It is a limited life in the extreme, but Kent takes us there, and it feels utterly convincing. She has the gift of recreating a tiny, closed-in world, in all the interest of its detail, that is as alien to us today, as if she’d set it on another planet.
Our main characters are Nora, who is widowed in the first chapter, Nance Roach who is the local ‘cunning woman’, someone who deals in cures and charms, and Mary, a fourteen year old who is hired out as a seasonal worker and who comes to help Nora with her severely disabled small grandson. This might be Ireland in 1825 but medieval superstition, especially belief in the Good People – the fairies – still exists. While the local, hard-nosed priest, preaches against the superstition, pretty much everyone in the valley believes in the Good People, avoids places where they might gather, like the Piper’s Grave, and go to Nance to get their ailments cured. It is Kent’s intent to get inside this society, and to let us see their lives and actions through their eyes.
The tragedy of the novel is centred on the grandson, Michael. His mother died when he was two and his father dumps him on Nora and leaves. While Nora’s husband, Martin, dies a few pages in (suspiciously clutching his chest, and at the cross roads), we get the feeling that if he had lived they could have cared for Michael together, but grieving after his death, the difficulty of the disability starts to crush Nora, and the child’s mannerisms and the change in his appearance, makes her happy to eventually accept the rumour that he is a changeling – a fairy child left in the place of her real grandson.
As in ‘Burial Rites’, Kent takes a baffling crime and creates a plausible story around it. Here, she has to convince us that the three women she has portrayed as essentially good, could do something, that, on the face of it, is fairly evil. I don’t know if she is entirely successful but, as with, ‘Burial Rites’, I empathised with the ‘criminals’. Nance Roach, in particular, is a finely-drawn character, but it was the details of life in early 19th century Ireland that fascinated me – the earth floor of the ‘cabins’, goats and chickens in the houses, bare feet, even in the snow, the ‘breakfast potato’, (in fact the diet seems to consist only of milk from their one cow, eggs from the chickens and potatoes from their potato bed). There is also mention of the itinerant poor who are accused of nicking the necks of people’s cows and drinking their blood for sustenance.