The Good People by Hannah Kent

The story of a changeling…

😐 😐

the-good-peopleWhen her husband Martin suddenly dies, Nóra is left alone, except for the young grandchild she is looking after, the son of her dead daughter. Young Michéal was a healthy child for the first couple of years of his life, but now there’s something seriously wrong with him – he can no longer walk or talk and needs constant attention. Nóra finds him a burden and is ashamed of him, trying to hide him from the sight of the other villagers. But there is already gossip about the child – some believe he is a changeling, left by the Good People (i.e. fairies) in the place of the real Michéal whom they have stolen. And Nóra is becoming more willing to believe this too.

Kent uses Martin’s wake to introduce us to this small, superstitious Irish community in the early 1800s. The villagers share their belief between the teachings of the Catholic church and the older, more pagan, traditions, and see no real contradiction between them. But the Catholic church doesn’t feel the same way, and the new priest is determined to stamp out the old practices. The villagers operate a simple policy of pretending to go along with this, while still carrying out the old rites behind the priest’s back. In the woods lives old Nance, the village midwife and wise woman, to whom the villagers secretly turn when they need the kind of help of which the priest wouldn’t approve. Nance knows the ways of the Good People, and uses a mix of magic and herb lore to heal and cure. And she’s had experience of changelings before…

Kent’s prose is just as skilled in this as in her earlier novel, Burial Rites, and again she creates her setting brilliantly and believably. Unfortunately, the story of this one isn’t nearly as interesting and is dragged out for far too long, becoming ever slower and more repetitive as it goes along. It’s entirely monotone – misery all the way, with no glimmer of light amidst all the darkness. It’s crystal clear from very early on how it’s all going to play out – arguably, the same could be said of Burial Rites, but in that one although the ending is never in doubt, the interest is in discovering the reason behind the crime. In this one, the reason is obvious and particularly unpleasant, as are the descriptions of how awful Nóra found it to deal with this child.

Hannah Kent
Hannah Kent

Nance’s story is a little more interesting, if just as depressing, as we discover how she learned her lore about the Good People. And another character is introduced, young Mary, whom Nóra hires to help her with the child. I initially hoped that she would bring a touch of lightness into the story, but sadly not – she too is soon dragged down to the general level of desperation prevailing in the village. It feels authentic to a degree – people in rural Ireland were undoubtedly dirt-poor and superstitious in that era, so I imagine happiness wasn’t overflowing. But I bet it wasn’t entirely non-existent either, and I always dislike these books that simply invite us to wallow voyeuristically in other people’s misery and show nothing to contrast with it. Not only did I not care about any of the characters, I actively disliked them all, especially Nóra.

Sadly, I found at about the halfway point that I couldn’t stand much more of it, so flicked through the second half, dipping in and out to see if the tone changed, or if the story veered from the predictable path. But neither did, and I came away from it admiring the prose and the research, but disappointed in both the monotone style and the repetitive and over-long story. I’m sure it will appeal more to people who have a greater tolerance for this kind of unrelieved misery novel than I do – a mismatch between book and reader on this occasion.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Pan MacMillan.

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49 thoughts on “The Good People by Hannah Kent

    • Pity – this was one I was really looking forward to. But it’s picking up five-stars too, so it’s clearly just a matter of taste with this one – her writing is excellent. If you ever do decide to try her, I’d definitely recommend Burial Rites though – I loved that one!

  1. I’m in the middle of reading this at the moment (but still couldn’t resist reading your review!) This could be the kind of story I became quite engrossed in, but it hasn’t caught me. I don’t feel a sense of humanity or uplift in the characters’ (hard) lives. I will keep reading as I do have some engagement with the story but it’s not what I hoped it might be.

    • That was how I felt too – I really expected to become involved in the characters’ lives, but found I never did, and therefore I couldn’t care about them… and therefore the book dragged! But I’ve seen mixed reviews for it, including some very positive ones, so I hope it picks up more for you and grabs you in the end…

  2. Oh, dear, FictionFan! I’m very sorry to hear that this one didn’t do it for you. I think Kent’s writing style is terrific, too, and I was really hoping you’d get drawn into this. Hmm….I did think Burial Rites was excellent. Hmmm…now I’m not so sure I’ll read this one, although I’d certainly planned to.

    • I’m sure it’s just this particular storyline wasn’t to my taste – I’ve seen other people be much more enthusiastic about it, so I wouldn’t want to put you off! Her writing is still great, and she’d obviousy done her research thoroughly. I’ll still be keen to see where she goes next…

  3. Your review is excellent, sorry this didn’t work for you especially after you enjoyed Burial Rites. I recently picked up Burial Rites at the library due to all the great reviews so it sounds like that one is worth the read and I’ll skipped this one. I would have a hard time continuing a book as well if I actively disliked all the characters!

    • Thank you! 😀 Yes, it was disappointing – I adored Burial Rites, and of course that probably meant my expectations of this one were unrealistically high. But I really didn’t like the characters, and somehow the book felt a little cold despite what should have been a very emotional storyline. However, plenty of people are loving it… and I hope you love Burial Rites! I look forward to hearing how you get on with it…

    • Yes, I’m afraid I like some light or hope in a book, especially at the moment when the real world is gloomy enough to be going on with! Pity though, because her writing is great – hopefully the next one will be a bit more balanced… 🙂

  4. Ohhh I was thinking the name of the author sounded familiar, I still haven’t read Burial Rites! Too bad that you didn’t enjoy this one!

    • Yes, I’m never keen on this kind of book that only shows the misery – I like a bit of light to balance it. But it’s just a matter of taste with this one, I think – plenty of people seem to be loving it. I thought Burial Rites was wonderful though – hope you enjoy it! 🙂

  5. It’s quite unusual for me to feel differently about a book as I feel that we are often on a similar wavelength but I really enjoyed this. I haven’t read “Burial Rites”, although people tell me I must, but I did read this immediately after “The Wonder” by Emma Donoghue, set also in a nineteenth century Irish village location and featuring another “extraordinary” child. Whilst I agree with you about the darkness and misery (which kept me from awarding it 5*) both books must have suited my Jan/Feb mood as I was drawn in equally. This was the slightly edgier one, because of that connection with folklore which threatened to burst into the main plot, whilst “The Wonder” was more the conflict between the child and religion. A friend of mine is also reading it and is calling it the best book she has read in ages. I wouldn’t go as far as that but it seems to be a book that is grabbing some people and not others. I just felt I was transported into that environment and although I was glad to get out of it the intensity of the whole thing appealed. After two books on the trot of Irish 19th century misery I was glad to turn to something lighter………………………

    • I do think with this one it’s very much a matter of taste rather than a quality judgement. Her writing is great and I thought she created the setting brilliantly. And clearly she had done her research! But I never like books that only show the misery of life – I like a bit of light or hope to balance it out a bit, because I don’t believe life is ever wholly miserable for every character… well, very rarely, at least. I’ve been looking at The Wonder, trying to decide if it’s for me, but if it’s another one that’s pretty miserable I think I’ll maybe give it a miss for a while. All the gloomy stuff that’s happening in the real world is leaving me feeling as if I need a bit of uplifting – a nice murder or two, maybe… 😉

    • I know – but I never like these novels that only show the misery, so it’s probably as much me as the book in this instance. Loads of people are loving it, so I wouldn’t want to put you off. Her writing is just as good as in Burial Rites…

  6. Shame – I usually find I think much the same as you about books. But I loved this book and thought It a heart breaking story. As it drew to its inevitable end I was really moved by the effect of fear, ignorance and superstition that brought about such a tragedy.

    • Even though it didn’t work for me, I can see why it would work for other people. I’m never really keen on “heart-breaking” – well, at least, I don’t mind having my heart broken if there’s some hope in the end, or if at least some of the characters have a chance of happiness. I also always have a problem with reading books about children being cruelly treated, and I really grew to dislike Nora as a result, whatever her reasons. But I’m glad you enjoyed it, and even gladder you commented, because I don’t want to put other people off from trying it, so it’s good to have the opposite viewpoint in the comments! 🙂

  7. Eww, this one sounds pretty dreadful! I have way too much on my plate to willingly spend hours reading through a misery-fest. I admire you more than you know for doing it so I wouldn’t have to! Now, reward yourself, ‘k?!!

    • Haha! I have some mini-choclate eggs so I shall recover soon! 😉 Truthfully, with this one, I think it’s as much me as the book. I just don’t like unrelieved misery and I also have a problem reading about children being treated cruelly, even if it is for “good” reasons. But it’s well written and she does the setting very well… oh, well!

  8. I only really like stories that show some sort of redemption, largely because I don’t actually believe the world is as miserable as some authors make it. So not one for me!

    • Me too, or at least the possibility of redemption. Amd if the main characters can’t be happy, I like some side characters to show a contrast – but all the characters in this one are miserable. Pity – she’s a great writer… maybe next one!

    • It was a slog for me, no doubt about that! But loads of people are loving it, so I think it’s as much my personal taste as the book with this one. I wouldn’t want to totally put you off… 🙂

  9. Sorry you found this disappointing, especially after you loved Burial Rites so much. I have just finished reading this one and liked it a lot more than you, despite the misery. I actually prefer it to Burial Rites!

    • I know – it was disappointing, though I think it was just a mismatch with my personal taste. I don’t like this kind of misery book and I’m not keen on reading about children being badly treated, whatever the reasons. But I still appreciated her prose and can quite see why other people are loving it – I think it might be one that kinda divides opinion. Glad you enjoyed it, though! 🙂

  10. Oh dear – although I preferred Burial Rites, I found Hannah Kent’s writing to be very engaging and I was surprised how interesting I found the superstitions that ruled the lives of the inhabitants of the area.

    • Yes, I can see why other people are liking it more – but I really never get along well with these books that only show the misery. I need a bit of light and shade or it all begins to feel like wallowing. But with this one, I knew it was more of a mismatch than that I really thought the book wasn’t good, if you know what I mean…

    • I thought Burial Rites was a great book, so happily recommend it. This one, I’m pretty sure my disappointment is probably as much a matter of personal taste as anything else, so I wouldn’t want to put you off completely… 🙂

  11. Uh oh. Since I haven’t read Burial Rites yet, I think I’ll go with that one for now. I don’t mind hearing about the odd book here and there that I don’t feel the need to add to the list. 🙂 I do always feel badly for the writer, though, when their second book is disappointing.

    • I’d definitely recommend Burial Rites – and lots of people are loving this one too, so I suspect it’s just a matter of personal taste. Yes, I hate giving a negative review to a fairly new writer, however successful their first novel might have been… 😦 Her writing is great though, so hopefully I’ll be back to high praise for her next one!

  12. I’ve just read this and found it lagged a bit in the middle as well, I started to lose interest and I think it was because of the flashbacks to Nance’s childhood which slowed down the pace and changed the style somewhat, it did pick up after that thankfully, but I think she may have lost a few readers along the way. I haven’t read Burial Rites yet, but look forward to doing so.

    • Yes, I found it very slow in the middle after a good start. Sometimes I feel authors feel as if they have to get up to a certain number of pages – maybe they get pressure from publishers. But I’d rather read a short, pithy book than one that drags a little. However, Burial Rites is great, and I’m looking forward to seeing where she goes next… 🙂

  13. I have read mixed reviews about this book, and although I loved Burial Rites I did not request a review copy of this one. Maybe next time I’m in the UK I will stumble upon a second-hand copy. Maybe it is just not meant to be! Having said this, Kent’s debut was such a success and it was such a skillful debut that it would be hard to reproduce it…

    • Yes, I’m seeing mixed reviews too – but plenty of people are loving it much more than me, so hopefully if you get to it some day, it will work better for you. I love Burial Rites, but I sometimes wonder if it’s a bad thing for an author to have a huge success with a debut – it really piles the pressure on for the next one…

  14. Sigh. Sigh. Sighily sigh. I held back on reading your review till I had finished my read, which happened yesterday, but I did spot your star rating, and was rather hoping against hope that I wouldn’t be heading in the same kind of direction. Alas. It won’t make my blog, for some of the reasons you cite. I didn’t dislike it as much as you. I am at 3 1/2, better than okay (quality of writing itself, and subject matter leaves a lot to be thinking about, which I do like) but oh………it wasn’t even a dislike of the characters, I can handle that, but not to be particularly bothered or invested in any of them, other than in a kind of sociological way, as examples of types and situations. And, okay I don’t need to have a desire to turn pages for purely plot reasons, but there must be some investment in ‘what happens next’ And, not here, for me. Trudge, trudge, trudge. I can understand you giving up. No idea whether I will end up knocking off or rounding up the final star, – but, we do have one here which left us both sourfaced…………Clearly, we are both Bad People. And you know how much a book about fairies should have appealed to me……………

    • It was particularly disappointing because we had such high hopes for it. I think my problem with Nora was that I was never convinced that she actually thought the child was a changeling – she just behaved as if she couldn’t be bothered looking after it. Which is understandable, but makes the motivation for the big event less complex and more nasty. I found the bit when she rushed home afterwards totally unconvincing because of this. I don’t always have to like a character but this is one case where I thought a more empathetic Nora would have improved the book. As would a severe edit of the draggy mid-section… Oh, well, hopefully book 3 will see her back on top form…

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