Publication date: September 19th 2017
She felt as though her soul was grinding itself into powder under the weight of her own unhappiness.
Nóra and her husband, Martin, are raising their dead daughter’s son because his father can’t. Four-year-old Micheál has some kind of sickness that has taken away his ability to walk or talk, even though he used to do both as a toddler. Now, he squawks and shrieks, flapping arms without control, with eyes that don’t focus on anything in the world around him. As The Good People begins, Nóra is caring for Micheál while Martin is out working. Until he is brought home to her, dead. Now she has no way of supporting herself and a child who needs fulltime care. A child with special needs who is not likely to be understood by any of their neighbors or family in their small Irish village. It is the 1800s and the gap between science and superstition is a wide one, almost as large as the desperation that leads Nóra to a decision that goes horribly wrong.
Nóra takes what little money she has and hires a girl from another village to help. Though she’s only fifteen, Mary has nine siblings and so isn’t put off by Micheál. As Nóra’s grappling with all this, fall turns into winter and more things start going wrong, both at her home and in the village. A young pregnant woman miscarries. The hens stop laying and cows stop giving milk. Does this have something to do with Nance, the old woman who lives outside the village and is known as a midwife and a healer? A woman who is known to have Knowledge and to connect with the good people, who, in The Good People, are fairies and are not good at all. Rather they are mischievous and sometimes cruel. Nance supposedly knows how to deal with them, which is fine until people need someone to blame. And there’s no one better than an elderly, impoverished, but independent woman—even if she has been helping the community for twenty years. To make matters worse, Nance is pressured by Nóra, who is certain she can help her grandson, who, she is now convinced, is not her grandson at all.
Author Hannah Kent adroitly maneuvers the characters and the mindsets of the times throughout the novel. Superstition is frowned on by the Catholic priests, but they are not on the side of science or medicine, preferring that parishioners look to God for answers. Regarding Micheál, Nóra gets no help whatsoever from either priest or doctor. Acceptance of one’s lot in life with no hope of improvement seems to be big theme in rural Ireland at the time. That or a miracle cure. Either of which leaves the inhabitants of 19th century rural Ireland as a backwards people living in a grim bog of deprivation and folklore. Kent presses this home with the title The Good People. Yes, it is the name of the supernatural beings the villagers believe in, but it is also an allusion to the villagers themselves, who can be more malicious and dangerous than the fairies. If all of this sounds bleak, it is, but Kent’s atmospheric prose charges the story of Nóra and Nance with a current that makes their story electrifying.