Sunday, 7 May 2017

The Good People

The Good People is set in County Kerry, Ireland, in 1825. Nóra Leahy has lost her husband and her daughter in the same year and now finds herself caring for her four year old grandson.  But Micheál is not the happy, healthy boy she remembers.  He can no longer walk, or speak, and there are rumours in the village that his deformities are evidence of other-wordly interference, bringing bad luck.  Desperate to find out what is wrong, Nóra and her maid Mary seek out Nance Roche, who is said to have the knowledge of the Good People, old magic, and remedies. Nance believes that Micheál has been replaced with a fairy changeling, and together the three women set out to restore him to the child Nóra remembers.

I always think a sign of good historical fiction is when you finish reading, and you straight away want to go and read more about the period in question.  I definitely did this with The Good People - I was fascinated by the traditions and superstitions surrounding Nóra's story.  The story is set in a remote part of Ireland where the people are heavily superstitious, and their lives are very much governed by the various rituals they have in place to counteract bad luck.  Because the valley is so cut off there is little to no knowledge of medicine or science, and anything bad that happens in the valley is generally blamed on the fairy folk, the Good People.

It's very clear to the reader that Micheál is suffering from a medical condition which is really causing his deformities but that Nóra simply doesn't have the understanding to see this.  She does the only thing she can think of in turning to Nance, because she has a history of using her knowledge to cure various ailments.  Even though some of the things they do to Micheál 'to 'put the fairy out of him' would definitely be considered abuse today, you can't help but feel sorry for Nóra at the same time - she truly believes the child is not her true grandson, and is acting out of love for him.  Nance too, believes she is doing the right thing by him.

The story takes inspiration from a true event very similar to the one described and many similar cases, where people were killed or allowed to die as a result of people attempting to banish changelings, when in fact they were suffering from an unknown condition, which is very sad.  The book was quite repetitive in places particularly in the dialogue - I thought that Nance and Nóra seemed to have the same conversation quite a lot - but this was nothing that took away from my enjoyment of the story, and I think the historical context was really well written.  It was clear from reading that the folklore and superstition were not just limited to a few people and just how much it played a part in the daily life of a whole community.  It was interesting to think about how things we know a lot about now, like disability and mental illness, were understood in the context of Irish folk belief, and I learned a lot.  In her author's note Hannah Kent makes some suggestions for further reading of books that helped her in writing, and I definitely think I will pick a couple up in the future, maybe for Non Fiction November!

Rating: ★★★★

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