The Good People by Hannah Kent

The Good People, Hannah Kent’s second novel, tells the story of three women living in a remote Irish valley in 1825. Nora Leahy, a widow, is burdened with the care of her grandson, Michael. The boy cannot walk or speak and Nora has kept him hidden from neighbours, fearing they will believe him a ‘changeling’ (someone who has been abducted by fairies). Nora employs a young girl, Mary, to care for Michael but as the child becomes increasingly difficult to manage, Nora seeks the help of Nance Roche, an old woman known as a doctress –

“The keener. The handy woman… She was both the woman who brought babies to safe harbour in the world, and the siren that cut boats free of their anchors and sent them into the dark.
…she stood in for that which was not and could not be understood. She was the gatekeeper at the edge of the world. The final human hymn before all fell to wind and shadow and the strange creaking of stars.

However, the arrival of a new priest and a string of unfortunate and troubling events, makes Nance and her practices the centre of unwelcome attention –

“The parade of sickness to her door had thinned since Father Healy had preached against her. No doubt her patients’ concern for their souls was now greater than their anxiety over chapped hands or the fevers glittering through their children.”

When you start a review with caveats you know there’s a big ‘but’ coming –

  1. Burial Rites is one of the best books I’ve ever read, so my expectations for The Good People were unfairly and astronomically high.
  2. Hannah Kent’s writing about landscape and nature is unbelievably beautiful. It was breathtaking in Burial Rites and is matched in The Good People.

“December arrived and bled the days of sunlight, while the nights grew bitter, wind-rattled.”

“Nance sat in the dark of her cabin and, through her open door, watched the dying year surrender to snow.”

“Outside the night sky was gripped with stars.”

But there were a few things that troubled me about The Good People. Primarily, the story lacked intimacy and it seemed, particularly in the first quarter of the book, that Kent was info-dumping – clearly her research into Irish folklore and the use of herbs was meticulous but there was too much in the story. I wanted to know more about the characters and less about hogweed and nettles.

And because of that, I wasn’t emotionally invested in the story – where Agnes, the Icelandic murderess in Burial Rites made me weep, the character of Nora never cut deep – I was irritated by her stubbornness and didn’t feel her desperation in the way that I perhaps should have.

Finally, there’s a scene involving Nora toward the end of the book that is very similar to one about Agnes in Burial Rites. I felt let down – the similarity sucked the power from Nora’s moment of reckoning and diluted my memory of the same section in Burial Rites (and left me thinking ‘Why Hannah? Why?’).

3/5 Kent writes beautifully, there’s no doubt about that but overall, I felt that The Good People sagged under the weight of too much information.

Nora bakes soda bread to herald the new year.


23 responses

  1. This is in my To Be Read pile so I was interested to read your thoughts. I did not love, though I did like, Burial Rites so my expectations are not as high. The folklore element was what attracted me to this book. Thanks for the review.

    • The folklore element is interesting and there is lots about superstitions and beliefs that was well incorporated into the story.

      I also have The Wonder by Emma Donaghue on my TBR stack and I’ll be interested to see how they compare, particularly as they are set at a similar time and play with themes of spirituality and belief, and unexplained events.

  2. Like you, my expectations for this are huge, so it’s good to have them tempered somewhat! It’s such a shame when authors don’t want to let go of their hard work with research – editors need to be more brutal!

    • All the early reviews I read were glowing but I do wonder if reviewers hold back a little when they are reviewing ‘one of their own’ (ie. internationally successful Australian author).

      Maybe it’s unfair to compare it to Burial Rites but then again, I figure I do that with all of my favourite authors – as soon as I read a new Irving, Shriver, McEwan or (new to me) Yates, I stack it up against the others. It’s still a beautifully written book but it didn’t have the same heart or the same impact on me as BR.

  3. That’s such a shame, but not entirely surprising, I suppose. Novelists often seem to have trouble following a tremendously successful debut – perhaps it’s the pressure of being in the spotlight. Your comment about info-dumping is interesting. I was amazed that she managed not to to that with Burial Rights given that it was based on her PhD research.

    • I agree – huge pressure with the second novel, particularly when the first one was an unexpected international bestseller.

      I did wonder if she avoided info-dumping in Burial Rites BECAUSE it was her PhD – she was so familiar with the material and understood it so thoroughly (she also lived in Iceland for a year) that she managed to self-edit??

      I heard her speak about The Good People a few weeks ago and she told the audience that before writing this book she hadn’t been to Ireland and knew little about Irish folklore and how it intersected with religion, and about the use of herbs in healing. She did a large amount of research in Australia, wrote the bulk of the book and then went to Ireland to ‘walk the landscape’ and do further research into herbs and folklore. I think she got the landscape stuff right but I don’t think she filtered the folklore enough. Yes, it’s authentic and interesting but I would have preferred more ‘fiction’ and stronger character development.

  4. I enjoyed the folklore in The Brigid Series by Sheila Lamb, and I didn’t feel like it took away from the story. I’m not sure I would like this author’s writing; I feel that, based on your excerpts, her word choices are just the TINIEST bit off, which would annoy me. For example, the night sky was gripped with stars. If anything, wouldn’t the metaphor be the night sky gripped the stars? Hmmm..

  5. I haven’t read this but tend to avoid anything that’s set more than 50yrs ago unless it goes back and forth into the now. Not sure why I struggle with historical fiction but I do.

    • Even if historical fiction is not your thing (and it’s not really mine either, although I dabble), do read Burial Rites if you haven’t already done so – one of the best examples of the genre in my opinion.

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  8. Hi I’m also finished but finding it.a bit slow to read. I’m interested, if Michal was alive today what disease do you think he had? Hannah Kent talks to a Richard Fidler on the conversation hour podcast, it’s worth a listen.

    • Thanks for the tip about the podcast – I will give it a listen (I did hear Hannah speak when the book was launched and, as always, she’s fascinating to listen to).

      I don’t know about Michael today! I wish I’d thought to ask that question at Hannah’s talk!

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