Thursday 19 October 2017

Evocative tale of healing, murder and changeling child inspired by true story

Crime: The Good People, Hannah Kent, Picador, €16.99

The Good People by Hannah Kent
The Good People by Hannah Kent

Claire Coughlan

Australian author Hannah Kent's first novel, Burial Rites, was published to much acclaim in 2013 and shortlisted for the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction. It is set in Northern Iceland of the 1820s and was inspired by a real person and real events. Agnes Magnusdottir was the last person executed in Iceland - for murder, theft and arson. Burial Rites reimagines the events leading up to Agnes's death and it is a taut, atmospheric tale, compellingly told. Kent wears the undoubted exhaustive amount of research she must have undertaken with a lightness of touch and the story itself takes absolute precedent.

The Good People, Kent's second novel, was inspired by a snippet Kent found in an archive of an English newspaper while she was researching Burial Rites. Dating from 1826, the report detailed a murder trial from Co Kerry in which the accused was acquitted after presenting a most unusual defence. Intrigued, this led Kent on another research odyssey, learning about Irish folklore and traditions, including a six week stint spent in Ireland.

The novel centres around three female characters. Nora is a widow who is grieving the sudden loss of her husband. She is also struggling to care for her young grandson Micheal, who is unable to speak or walk. There's Mary, who arrives in the Co Kerry valley just as rumours spring up that Micheal is a changeling child. And, meanwhile, Nance is a 'handywoman' - a healer in the eyes of the people, but also a threat to the new priest. The three women are united by their attempts to restore Micheal, which leads them through a dark trajectory, eventually resulting in murder.

The 'good people' of the title refers to the supernatural, to the fairies of Irish folklore. Kent's immersion and passion for her subject is evident - even the cadence of the characters' speech in the novel is exact and authentic. The Good People is quite a dense read, however, and although the writing is evocative, it's not quite as compelling as its predecessor.

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