Monday 20 March 2017

The Good People - Hannah Kent (2016)

Hannah Kent is the author of the superb novel Burial Rites (2013), which is surely one of the great debut novels in Australian literary history. The quality and success of Burial Rites casts a long shadow over The Good People, a novel Kent was inspired to write when she was undertaking research for Burial Rites. The Good People is set in the 1820’s in a remote community in Ireland which is poised between the old ways and modernity. The novel’s characters are enmeshed in a belief system that attaches folkloric meanings to every day events, both the mundane and the tragic. The Good People is the name given to the fairy folk who live in the woods around certain trees and must be treated with respect (hence the euphemistic name, as they are anything but good). The novel’s principal protagonist is an elderly woman called Nance Roche (who based on a real historical character), who serves the villagers with her knowledge of herbal remedies, folk rituals and connection with the Good People.

The Good People is an extremely dark, atmospheric novel, which appropriately begins with the death of Nora Leahy’s husband at the crossroads near an area where suicides are buried. His demise follows the recent death of Nora’s daughter, Johanna, from a mystery illness, leaving Nora’s grandchild, Michael, whom is both paralyzed and cretinous, in her care. Nora hides Michael away from the townsfolk, rightly fearing their superstitious judgement. The Good People’s main thematic thrust is the friction between Paganism and Christianity during an era in which they very much overlap, creating a culture in which both have agency. A particular strength of the novel is that Kent does not convey authorial moral judgements, rather the reader is left to make up their own mind about the actions of characters such as Nance Roach, who is portrayed as merely acting in good faith according to ancient belief systems. Roach is a particularly fascinating and sympathetic character and the novel really comes alive when she is the principal focus. Young outsider Mary Clifford, hired by Nora to help with Michael, is also a crucial character, often acting as both the novel’s conscience and a voice of reason. Mary evokes a strong emotional resonance that creates overwhelming sympathy toward Michael and, to a lesser extent, Nora and her plight as Michael’s principal care-giver.

Kent’s portrayal of early nineteenth century Irish village life, with their earthy and colourful vernacular, the descriptions of their meager diet and most of all their complex folk rituals and superstitions, appear to be wholly authentic. Kent really is quite a gifted writer, evoking Irish rural life, with its mystical landscapes and harsh realities, with some beautifully lyrical writing. Unfortunately the pace of the narrative during the first half of the novel is at times sluggish and also somewhat repetitive, therefore I found it difficult to fully engage with the novel. The overwhelmingly bleak atmosphere is hard to take at times, particularly as a series of misfortunes befalls the villagers and the sense of foreboding becomes almost suffocating; also the cruel treatment of Michael by those who are meant to be his carers may be too much for some readers, particularly after such a slow beginning to the novel.

It is perhaps unfair to compare The Good People to Burial Rites, however there is no question that the novel suffers in comparison to Kent’s brilliant debut. The Good People is certainly no failure, Kent still writes beautifully and there are sections in the novel that are outstanding. The tone and moral landscape of the novel are also both handled deftly, as are the characterizations, in particular those of Nance Roach and Mary Clifford. Perhaps Kent is fated to be Australia’s foremost modern Gothic writer, with both her novels set in bleak but beautiful landscapes and featuring tragic tales of loss and suffering, if so then that is not such a bad thing.