The good people by Hannah Kent
Picador, 2016. ISBN 9781743534908
(Age: 16+) Highly recommended.
This is the second book from Hannah Kent, whose award winning first novel 'Burial rites' received great acclaim. That novel, based on a true story, was set in the cold bleak environment of northern Iceland in 1829 and told the story of Agnes Magnusdottir condemned to death for murder. This latest book 'The good people' is about another 'dark happening in a cold place' and is set in 1825 in south-west Ireland at a time of poverty and hunger and fearful superstition. Kent immerses us completely in the hard frugal lives of the people trying to eke out a living with potatoes and the milk from the cows when available, living in windowless cabins under thatch rooves with dirt floors and soot stained walls from the hearth fire.
We are drawn into the lives of three women gathered around a strange child - they are Nora, the distraught widow left to struggle on her own with the care of her grandchild; Mary, the young girl who has left a home with too many mouths to feed, taking on chores with Nora for the sake of food and shelter; and Nance, the mysterious old woman at the edge of the village, she who consorts with the 'good people', the fairies who wreck havoc with people's lives.
Nance knows the special herbs and cures. People furtively seek out her help with their troubles, careful to avoid the anger of the disapproving local priest. But when one misfortune follows another, and there are signs that the fairies have been about, fear and distrust leads to rumours about her. Is there an evil spirit amongst them, is it the child, or is it Nance, or are all three women involved in something bad?
The world of Nora, Mary and Nance and the surrounding villagers is very real. Kent has thoroughly researched every detail, and she brings it all alive - the austere lives, the dirt, the smells, the struggles and fears, the bitterness and spite, even the language of the time. The book held me to the very end - it is an intriguing story that leaves us, like the villagers, with still a few questions lingering in the mind.