STARRED REVIEW
September 19, 2017

Bleak and beautiful

By Hannah Kent

Polls often find that most Americans believe in angels, so it’s not hard to credit that a 19th-century Irishwoman might believe in fairies. Hannah Kent’s eerie novel The Good People invites us into this superstitious milieu.

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Polls often find that most Americans believe in angels, so it’s not hard to credit that a 19th-century Irishwoman might believe in fairies. Hannah Kent’s eerie novel The Good People invites us into this superstitious milieu.

The Irishwoman is Nóra. Inaugurating the novel is the funeral of her husband, evoking Faulkner in its impoverishment and starkness. The death leaves Nóra alone to care for her grandson, Micheál. But early on, the child evinces peculiar qualities and mannerisms. Nóra takes on a maid, Mary, to help and comes to believe that the child may be a changeling, a fairy, one of the “Good People.”

The novel thus centers on Nóra’s attempts to exorcise this uncanny being. She thinks this will transform the boy into her true kin or return the spirit to its rightful domain. Her methods become increasingly extreme, and finally Nance, a folk doctor specializing in keening, suggests submersion in a river. This leads to a prosecution, and the novel closes with a rather contrived courtroom scene. “CSI: Fairies,” you might say.

These three women are the principals, but the novel also features a kindly priest skeptical of the local folklore. Kent showcases botanical language and writes in a prose that’s often delectable. Her novel is more literary than thriller; for long stretches of the novel nothing much happens. There is but one central conflict, between Nóra and Micheál, but the resolution is decisive if unsatisfying.

Meanwhile, the novel succeeds in imagining a community of violent ignorance and lassitude. As in Faulkner’s best, Kent presents us with shells of people, consumed with survival. (Two decades later, famine would ravage the Emerald Isle.) The novel’s more historical aspects are more interesting and credible than those supernatural—but when most folks believe in angels, one would not want to presume.

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The Good People

The Good People

By Hannah Kent
Little, Brown
ISBN 9780316243964

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