A friend lent me Hannah Kent’s second novel a month or so ago, and I finished it quickly. I wanted to, because it was a kind of torture to read it. Kent creates another dark, cold world, where people are cruel and ignorant and without hope, but the bleakness is relieved by little acts of kindness, and by the lyrical beauty of the prose that describes the natural world. Unlike Burial Rites, her acclaimed debut novel, there is no redemption, only loss, and a final dawn escape for one of the characters, which can only be a lonely road towards her end… though one gets the feeling that this is welcomed, for she is accompanied by ‘the birds above her and, in the slow unpeeling of darkness, a divinity of sky.’
Somehow, this book does not resonate in my mind as much as Burial Rites did. I am not sure why. Perhaps because of the predictability of the climax. The clash between the superstition of the villagers and their belief in ancient magic, and the fear and jealousy and brutality of some, exacerbated by the self-righteous stance of the village priest, can only have one sort of outcome, and that is the persecution of the old woman, Nance Roche, who is a natural healer and believes in the magic of The Good People. The object of healing is the four-year-old child Micheal, who was born healthy but has become afflicted physically and mentally. His grandmother Nora struggles to care for him, and hides him from the other villagers; when her husband dies suddenly, she is devastated, and comes to believe that the child is a changeling left by the fairies, who have stolen her grandson.
Nora hires a poor fourteen-year-old girl, Mary, from a distant village, to be her servant and to care for the child. Mary becomes the moral touchstone for the story. She feels tenderness and pity for the little being, and becomes an unwilling accomplice in the healing rituals that Nance performs, with Nora’s consent. When these rituals fail, healing is no longer the object; the object is to force the changeling to return to the fairy world so that the real human child can be restored to his grandmother. To the bitter end, Nora believes that the child is not Micheal. Mary protests and tries to save the child from his death. She becomes a witness in the subsequent trial of the two women, Nance and Nora, and here, too, she is a touchstone of truth, for though she believed at the time that they had murdered the child, she attests that Nance has ‘the knowledge’ of The Good People and their herbs, and her final statement in court is that the ritual that killed Micheal was ‘done with the intent to cure it, sir. To put the fairy out of it,’ and not with the intent of killing him. Hence the two women are acquitted.
Loss is the dominant theme of the story, with darker notes of cruelty and fear, in a world where religion and paganism lock the people in an uneasy tension between a capricious, often cruel world of magic and a self-righteous, patriarchal and at times venal moral code. The real world the people inhabit is evoked with an assured voice, modulating from realistic detail — ‘The smooth whiteness of the fields melted to mud and dying grass, and the valley felt darker for it’ — to poetry of lyrical intensity — ‘Lough Leane golden, and the surrounding mountains bearing down in holy indigo. The shifting, unfurling clouds passing the sun like pilgrims past a saint.’ Nature itself is divine, as the closing phrase of the symphony reminds us — ‘a divinity of sky.’
This, for me, is the strongest appeal of the book — the natural world, where things just are in their bleakness and beauty. If there is any redemption in the bleak and tragic human story, it is in the simple truth and compassion of the poor servant girl, the small acts of tenderness and kindness of some of the characters, and the empathy with which Kent performs her characters; they are dark and light, they suffer, and there is no black and white. For much of the story I found myself part believer in the magic and the knowledge that Nance is a practitioner of, and almost hoping that indeed the little boy would be restored to his undamaged self. Of course, we know the outcome before we begin to read the story, but such is the power of a great writer, to make us suspend disbelief.
Although I found Burial Rites more fascinating because of its setting, I think The Good People is a more confident, mature novel.