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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Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

burial rites“The quality of mercy…”

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Publication Due 29th August 2013

Haunting and heartbreaking, this is the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, condemned to die for her part in the murder of two men, one her lover. While waiting for the date of execution to be set, Agnes is put into the custody of Jón and Margrét Jónsson and, at Agnes’ request, a young priest, Reverend Tóti, is given the task of preparing Agnes spiritually for her death. At first the family are horrified to have a murderess amongst them, Margrét fearing for the safety and moral well-being of her own two daughters Lauga and Steina, while Tóti doubts his own experience and ability to help Agnes find some kind of repentance and acceptance. But as summer fades into the long, harsh winter, Agnes gradually breaks her silence and begins to reveal her story of what led to that night…

“The weight of his fingers on mine, like a bird landing on a branch. It was the drop of the match. I did not see that we were surrounded by tinder until I felt it burst into flames.”

Set in Iceland in 1829, the book is a fictionalized account of a true story. The writing is excellent and the author has clearly researched both Agnes’ story and Icelandic culture of the time thoroughly. The characterization is very strong, especially of the three main characters. We see Tóti’s struggle to overcome his own feelings, initially of repugnance, but later of inadequacy and guilt as he begins to feel attracted to Agnes. Margrét is stern and determined to protect her family, but as she comes to know Agnes better her innate fair-mindedness begins to see that things are not as black and white as she had thought. And the complex character of Agnes remains ambiguous throughout – sometimes she earns our sympathy, pity even, but the crime is always there to make us think there is another side to her. Mostly told as a third-person narrative, there are also first-person sections that let the reader see some of the thoughts and memories Agnes is holding back from the other characters.

“In those early visits it was as though we were building something sacred. We’d place words carefully together, piling them upon one another, leaving no spaces. We each created towers, two beacons, the like of which are built along roads to guide the way when the weather comes down.”

Hannah Kent
Hannah Kent

Kent paints extraordinary pictures with her words. She brings the harsh Icelandic environment vividly to life – the relentless struggle to scrape an existence out of the land, the constant presence and threat of extreme weather. And she shows us the isolated and claustrophobic way of life, where old superstitions still persist in spite of the strict enforcement of religion; and where all members of a household, master and servant, share a communal living space in farms which may be cut off from even their nearest neighbours for days or weeks at a time. She weaves these things so naturally through the story that there is never a feeling of being ‘told’ about them – rather she writes as if these things will be familiar to the reader, and gradually they become so.

“Already the mountain grass is fading to the colour of smoked meat, and the evenings smell of burning fish oil from lamps newly lit. At Illugastadir there will soon be a prickle of frost over the seaweed thrown upon the shore. The seals will be banked upon the tongues of rock, watching winter descend from the mountain.”

I loved the style of writing from the first pages, and as I got drawn more into the characters and the culture, I found this became an intensely moving book, never sentimental, never taking the easy option, never telling the reader what to think or feel. To call this a stunning debut is almost to insult it – this is a more compelling and assured book than most writers ever achieve. Highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK.

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