The Good People by Hannah Kent
I’ve toured the world in fiction in 2016 but am wrapping up my travels with a last-minute stop in 19th century Ireland courtesy of Australian author and household name in the making, Hannah Kent.
I heard Kent talk about this book long before I started it and was blown away by the sheer force of her spirited intellect. The Good People is her second novel (after Burial Rites) and once again she has wrapped her insatiable interest in history and social rituals into a story based on true events.
This time she writes about Fairy Lore, not a hipster baby name, but a set of beliefs, customs and superstitions that existed in parts of Ireland in the 1800’s. Listening to Kent talk, it was her fascination with how this almost childlike folklore crossed into the fabric of everyday life (including the legal system) that she really wanted to explore on the page.
The Good People centres around three female characters and a four-year-old disabled boy. The women convince themselves the boy is a changeling (a fairy child left in place of a human child who has been stolen by the fairies) and set out to “put the fairy” out of him.
There’s no end to the remedies and rituals applied to this boy and many other characters throughout the book. I honestly don’t know how the Irish managed to get a single thing done each day given the amount of time they spent warding off the fairies.
Kent’s fascination with these superstitions is truly infectious, although The Good People is much more than just an encyclopaedia of fun fairy facts. It is a dark and unsettling look at the extent to which people can allow themselves to suspend reality and cling to the supernatural in situations of fear and uncertainty.
I thought Kent’s use of the setting was ingenious, with the characters sheltered by the valley as much as they were their beliefs and there is a lingering uneasiness that would make anyone believe.
And that’s just my 2 cents worth.