A vil­lage living in ter­ror of bad fairies

The Herald - Arts - - BOOKS - Han­nah Kent Pi­cador, £14.99 Re­view by Shirley White­side

BURIAL Rites, Han­nah Kent’s much-lauded de­but novel, left the Aus­tralian au­thor with the un­en­vi­able task of try­ing to match its crit­i­cal suc­cess with her next novel. As with her de­but, The Good Peo­ple is based on a true story but this time Kent’s gaze has trav­elled from Ice­land to 1820s Ire­land and an­other iso­lated com­mu­nity.

Its in­hab­i­tants scratch a wretched living from the land, kept alive by eat­ing a re­lent­less diet of pota­toes. They live in fear of the iron­i­cally named Good Peo­ple, the fairies who take vi­cious re­venge on any hu­mans who slight them.

Nora Leahy’s hus­band dies sud­denly leav­ing her to care for Micheal, their dis­abled, four-year-old grand­son. Since their daugh­ter’s re­cent death, the boy has lived with his grand­par­ents, but after an un­event­ful in­fancy Micheal has re­gressed and can no longer speak or walk.

Nora tries to hide him away from pry­ing eyes and gos­sip and hires a girl, Mary, to help her look after him. In des­per­a­tion Nora ap­peals to a doc­tor and then to the Church to help Micheal. Cru­elly re­buffed by both, she turns to Nance Roche, an old woman who dis­penses herbal reme­dies and is said to com­mu­ni­cate with the fairies.

When hens stop lay­ing and cows run dry of milk, a ru­mour spreads around the val­ley that Micheal is a changeling who has brought bad luck to all. Nora, Mary, and Nance try to pro­tect the child and us­ing the old ways, bring him back to him­self.

The at­mos­phere Kent cre­ates is claus­tro­pho­bic and fear­ful. The dirt floor houses are poorly lit and full of smoke from the turf fires. Rain is ev­er­p­re­sent, cast­ing a gloomy pall over the val­ley, and clothes never dry. It is a dank and mis­er­able ex­is­tence with only ‘poitin’, lo­cal moon­shine al­co­hol, for com­fort.

The old-fash­ioned rhythms of speech and scat­ter­ing of Ir­ish Gaelic words help to root the story in a spe­cific time and place. The Good Peo­ple are por­trayed as an ev­ery­day fact of life and Kent care­fully passes no mod­ern-day judge­ments on the wide­spread be­lief in the fairies in the com­mu­nity.

Nora is a sym­pa­thetic char­ac­ter, as she copes with los­ing her daugh­ter and hus­band within months of each other and be­ing left with a ‘cratur’ that at times fright­ens her.

Nev­er­the­less, her valiant at­tempts to pro­tect Micheal show her courage and com­pas­sion. Mary, the bright teenage girl whom Nora hires, also tries to shield Micheal from the grow­ing gos­sip. Nance, how­ever, is the most in­ter­est­ing char­ac­ter, an old woman who has known great hard­ship, and has had to cre­ate a life for her­self with her herbal reme­dies and knowl­edge of the Good Peo­ple.

The brash new priest, Fa­ther Healy, sets out to dis­credit Nance and preaches against her and the old ways. With the ad­vanc­ing author­ity of the church, she knows her in­flu­ence is wan­ing.

Kent has a won­der­ful tal­ent for tak­ing frag­ments of his­tor­i­cal facts and breath­ing life into them through her fic­tion. She has matched her de­but with an­other dis­turb­ing and haunt­ing novel.

The at­mos­phere Kent cre­ates is claus­tro­pho­bic and fear­ful

Han­nah Kent has fol­lowed her de­but Burial Rites with an­other dis­turb­ing and haunt­ing novel

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