After a disappointing read with ‘Into the Sea’ I was ready for something a bit richer and stronger. I decided to give Hannah Kent’s latest novel ‘The Good People’ a shot and it was well worth the effort.
Kent wrote Burial Rites and this is her second novel. It’s the story of a poor village family living in Southern Ireland in the late 1800’s. The novel opens with the husband dying suddenly and this being the second bereavement for Nora in the year as her daughter had also died. She finds herself left with the care of her 4 year old grandson who was once a healthy boy, but now is suffering from some debilitating illness that prevents him from walking or speaking. He is totally dependent on others so Nora, struggling with grief and the weight of responsibility, hires Mary, a young farm girl to be her assistant and to care for him.
In time Nora is convinced that the boy (Micheal) is actually not her grandson but that he is a fairy – that ‘the good people’ (the fairies) have stolen him and replaced him with one of their own.
The local expert in folk remedies (Nance) enters and the remainder of the story follows their various bizarre, but sincere attempts to rid Micheal of ‘the fairy’.
It is an interesting reflection on the power of superstitious belief and the degree to which it affects us. It highlights many practices of the (not so) ancient Irish and as you read it you realise our society is only different by degrees and not by kind. We still believe and practice odd things from time to time (touch wood…) in the curious belief that there is another power at work. I had written ‘a higher power at work’ but I’m not sure it’s necessarily seen as higher – just ‘other’.
As it finishes the story depicts a primitive Irish culture alongside the more sophisticated mainstream, but it also shows how deep and strong the folk beliefs lie. When a culture is formed over thousands of years simple rational explanations for sickness and struggle are unlikely to suffice.
As well as dealing with the subject of folk religion, it deals with how we perceive and interpret illness, especially serious mental illness. It looks at how we view calamity or lack of prosperity. It looks at how grief affects us and it is unique in that it focuses on the issues faced by single women, an elderly spinster, a widow and a young single girl. Nance the elderly spinster says:
‘An old woman without a man is the next thing to a ghost. No one needs her, folk are afraid of her, but mostly she isn’t seen.’
It’s a statement I have heard several times – that older single women are unnoticed in society.
From a faith perspective we would often pooh pooh superstitious practices, but we are sometimes blind to our own ‘folk Christianity’, that believes
– if we tithe faithfully God will bless us with abundance…
– That ‘x’ wasn’t healed because she didn’t have enough faith…
– That certain prayers must be recited word perfect to deal with spiritual oppression, curses and the like (because God won’t pass a near miss)
– That trouble in life is because of sin – that God is repaying us and balancing the ledger… because Jesus’ death was inadequate.
I could go on, and I’m sure you could suggest plenty more that you have heard or experienced.
While it is based on real events, it is still an odd subject for a novel, but Kent opens up the world of the Irish village community so well that it becomes intriguing and enjoyable to read.