The Good People by Hannah Kent

the-good-people The Good People is the second novel from Australian author Hannah Kent, following her 2013 debut Burial Rites. I liked Burial Rites – the story of a woman found guilty of murder in 19th century Iceland – but I didn’t love it the way so many other readers did and I was curious to see what I would think of this new one. Now that I’ve read it, I can say that this is definitely my favourite of the two.

The Good People is set in rural Ireland in the 1820s. Nóra Leahy is going through a difficult time, having lost both her daughter and her husband in the space of a year. She has been left to take care of her four-year-old grandson, Micheál, who should be a blessing to her – but to Nóra he is nothing but a worry. She remembers seeing him as a healthy, happy baby, yet the little boy her son-in-law has brought to live with her is entirely different: he is thin and sickly, has lost the use of his legs, can’t understand what is being said to him and communicates through uncontrollable screaming. Nóra knows something is badly wrong with him and, unable to cope on her own, she hires a girl, Mary Clifford, to help her look after him.

Mary is shocked by Micheál’s condition, but does her best for him with the limited knowledge she has, aware that Nóra is starting to view the child with fear and revulsion. In this isolated community, neither the village priest nor the doctor are able to offer any useful advice or explanations, so Nóra seeks the help of the healer and wise woman Nance Roche. Nance knows all about the world of the fairies, or the Good People, as she calls them, and tells Nóra that Micheál is not her grandson at all, but a changeling. Together, Nóra, Nance and Mary set about trying to drive the fairy out of the child’s body in the hope that the real Micheál will be restored.

As you can imagine, The Good People is not exactly the happiest or most uplifting of books – but then, not everything that happens in life is happy or uplifting either, and, like Burial Rites, this novel is based on a true event from history. Poor Micheál’s story is a tragic one, all the more so because of the treatment he receives from the very people he should be able to rely on for love and affection. The worst of it is, these people really seem to believe in fairies and convince themselves that Micheál really is a changeling, because then there is a chance that he can be cured. Through a mixture of ignorance and superstition, they think they are doing the right thing.

Hannah Kent writes beautifully and from the very first page the reader is pulled into a bygone world, a remote community in which the people, despite living in a Christian society, are still holding on to their ancient beliefs and traditions. This is not a fantasy novel or a fairy tale, yet the unseen fairies are a very strong presence throughout the story: we are told that the Good People live in their ringfort, Piper’s Grave, in a lonely part of the valley where lights dance around the ghostly whitethorn tree, and that their powers are strongest at the place where three rivers meet. Everyone seems to know of at least one person who has been ‘swept’ away by the fairies and they just accept these things as part of their everyday lives.

Because of the overwhelming sadness of the story and the suffering of little Micheál, I know this isn’t a book that will appeal to everyone, but I was very impressed by it. I loved it for the quality of the writing, the intensity of the atmosphere and the insights into life in a less enlightened time and place.

Thanks to Pan Macmillan for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Burial Rites Based on a true story, Burial Rites is a fictional account of the final weeks in the life of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last woman to be executed in Iceland.

It’s 1829 and Agnes – along with two other people – has been found guilty of murdering her lover, Natan Ketilsson. Due to the lack of prisons in the north of Iceland, Agnes has been sent to the farm of District Officer Jón Jónsson where she will await the day of her beheading. Understandably, Jón’s wife and daughters are nervous and angry about having a convicted murderer coming to stay with them, but as they have no choice in the matter they must find a way to deal with their fear and distrust.

Agnes is visited at the farm by Assistant Reverend Thorvárdur Jónsson (known as Tóti), the young priest she has chosen to act as her confidant and spiritual adviser. At first Tóti is surprised to have been given this task and isn’t sure how he can help Agnes, but he soon discovers that all she needs is someone to talk to about her past and about the events leading up to the night of the murder. As Tóti and the Jónsson family listen, the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir begins to unfold.

It seemed that everyone was reading Burial Rites a while ago, especially when it was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction earlier in the year. Despite the good reviews, it was not a book that sounded very appealing to me and I wasn’t planning to read it, but when I noticed it in the library I thought I would give it a try. Now that I’ve read it, I can understand why it has been so successful – it’s beautifully written, the setting is stunning and the atmosphere is haunting – and I did enjoy it, though maybe not as much as other people have.

I loved the Icelandic setting. This is not a story that would have worked had it been set in any other time or place. Nineteenth century Iceland, its landscape, its weather and its small rural communities are as important to the novel as the characters and the plot. The author does a great job of portraying both the isolation of farms and crofts such as Jón Jónsson’s at Kornsá or Natan’s at Illugastadir and the claustrophobia of daily life (entire families lived and slept in one room, known as the badstofa). The book includes extras such as a map and pronunciation guide for readers who, like me, know very little about Iceland.

While Agnes tells part of her story herself in first person, other sections of the novel are told from other perspectives and these are important in helping us to understand the perceptions people have of Agnes. It’s not surprising that Jón’s wife, Margrét, and daughters, Steina and Lauga, react with fear and suspicion at first, but as they learn more about Agnes they begin to adjust the way they think about her. Tóti’s feelings also change over the course of the novel, and so does the reader’s: at the beginning of the book we know nothing about Agnes and have no idea whether she is really guilty or not; by the end, we are left with a sense of sadness and injustice, especially on learning that the other woman accused of the murder (who happens to be younger and prettier) is given the opportunity to appeal while Agnes isn’t.

Of course, the account the fictional Agnes gives of her life and the circumstances of Natan’s murder is not necessarily what happened in real life and we don’t know whether Iceland’s last execution really was a miscarriage of justice or not. Burial Rites is a combination of fact and fiction, the result of both careful research and the author’s imagination. I thought it was interesting that in her author’s note, Hannah Kent says that she doesn’t think of Agnes Magnúsdóttir as a feminist heroine or even a heroine at all; just a ‘human who does not want to die, and no more’. But whatever else Agnes was, she was a character I cared about and I’m pleased to have had the chance to read her story.