Rating 5 stars
I chose Hannah Kent’s The Good People for my next read because it seemed like the direct opposite of The Book of Strange New Things. Set in rural Ireland in the heart of Munster, it’s the story of a small community of farmers. The year is 1825. Life is hard. For Nóra Leahy it gets harder still.
The story begins with the sudden death of Nóra’s husband Martin. He drops dead while digging a drainage ditch to protect the land he and Nóra farm.
The community is tied around with folklore and superstition. Martin dies at a crossroads within sight of a fairy dwelling, and earlier in the day four magpies were seen by one of the men who brings Martin’s body home to Nóra. The crossroads is a liminal place in folklore, where the human realm meets the supernatural. The popular version of the magpie rhyme says that seeing four magpies together signifies a boy, but a variation on the rhyme has the gathering of four meaning imminent death.
This folkloric tradition continues at the Leahy’s home when Nance Roche arrives to lead the keening. Nance has The Knowledge. She’s not a London cab driver, but rather someone who can receive messages from the supernatural realm. She stands at the beginning and end of life for members of the community, acting as midwife to bring babies safely (or not) into the world as well as the keening woman at a wake. She’s known variously as bean feasa and cailleach, both of which can translate as wise woman.
Kent peppers the narrative with Irish Gaelic words. Unlike the language Michel Faber invented for the Oasan characters in the last book I read, I was able to look these words up to understand their meaning.
From this sorrowful beginning, filled with observations of how lonely grief can be, and how those who gather to mourn death and remember life make grief about themselves, Kent weaves a tale of prejudice excused by superstition. There is prejudice among some of the community against Nance Roche because they see her as other to them. There is also prejudice against Nóra’s four year old grandson Micheál, who has lost the ability to talk and to walk.
Hannah Kent’s previous novel, Burial Rites, proved her ability to inhabit a different culture to her own and make real the characters who occupy the historical period she writes about. The Good People builds on that striking debut and shows Kent to be a master of her craft. She uses poetic turns of phrase to breathe life into her characters. Her descriptions of landscape and dwellings make real the damp, rugged existence of these impoverished people.
Women are at the centre of this tale. Women who are kept away from the rigours of life for being women. Superstition extends to pregnancy being a reason not to be in a house with a recently dead body, or not to be present at the slaughter of livestock. The souls of people and animals can apparently wreak havoc with the development of a baby in the womb.
Micheál becomes the focus of the community’s superstition and it’s up to Nóra, Nance and Mary Clifford, the girl Nóra employs to help her with Micheál, to protect him against those who believe that he is a changeling and would do him harm. Nóra, Nance and Mary also believe that he is a replacement for the real Micheál, who has been stolen by the fairies, known locally as the Good People. His mother Johanna, Nóra’s daughter, died not long before her father Martin’s death. The rumour is that the fairies took her, too, and Micheál is now a curse on the village. Cows have stopped milking and hens have stopped laying. Everything must have a reason, humans can’t abide the lack of understanding, and so superstition stands in for fact. It struck me that, when the things we don’t understand are full of the hardness of life, things like sudden death, incurable illness and infertility, our superstitions are equally hard. There is nothing soft or twee about folklore.
Mary is susceptible to the local gossip about Micheál, but she soon shows herself as a true ally to the boy in caring for him and questioning the methods that Nóra and Nance Roche employ in their determination to find a way to bring Micheál back from the fairies.
At first Nóra has a gritty determination to get on with things in the days and months following her losses. It isn’t easy for her. Although her neighbours and relatives want her to be more expressive about her grief, Nóra chooses not to let it show. It consumes her quietly, leaving her feeling that she would rather it had been her who died. For the sake of her grandson, though, who is all she has left in her true family, she fights on. Slowly, though, her grief affects her ability to think and act rationally. Her sense of loss informs every choice she makes.
Nóra’s struggle with how she feels about Micheál caused me to stop and think about disability and support networks. The entire book made me glad that I live in the time I do, for all its current difficulties. The support available through the NHS might have imperfections, but it exists and it works.
Nóra is left to choose between paying a doctor to look at Micheál and paying Mary to help her take care of him. Her thoughts turn to infanticide, but she is quick to pull back from this option. Kent’s description of Micheál’s condition suggests a cerebral palsy spectrum disorder. Although physicians in the early 19th century were beginning to research brain disorders, knowledge of cerebral palsy didn’t improve until the middle of that century. Doctors treating patients in rural Ireland probably wouldn’t have known about it, let alone families caring for someone with the disorder. This ignorance means that Micheál is hidden away from his community by Nóra and is subject to the prejudice of people who believe him to be cursed or a changeling left by the fairies.
The sister of one of my classmates at primary school 40+ years ago had cerebral palsy. She was hidden away, called by the medical term spastic in a pejorative way by us in our ignorance. She was educated separately from the rest of us at what was known as a Special School where the mentally and physically disabled were looked after. She was treated as ‘less than’ the rest of us. It took a good 20 years for people with disabilities to receive their education in the mainstream and to increasingly take their rightful place in society, learning and working alongside the able bodied. The Equality Act 2010 and its predecessor the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 have done much to change attitudes towards those with disabilities. Discrimination still exists, old prejudices and fears not a million miles away from those that guide Nóra’s community.
While I was reading, news came out that some healthcare providers, including GPs, are attempting to blanket apply advance care plans and DNACPR instructions to entire groups of people against advice from medical bodies the Care Quality Commission, Care Provider Alliance, British Medical Association and Royal College of General Practice. This behaviour isn’t just about people with life limiting illnesses for whom advance care plans are one of their care options. It’s about treating anyone for whom Covid-19 treatment might be more time consuming and less successful as a group and not as individuals. It’s deeming their healthcare needs to be lower priority. It’s on the road to eugenics, which a number of high profile supporters of the current government, and indeed their special advisors, are known proponents of.
Advance care plans have their place. I have many thoughts about my mum’s end of life experience. I wish we’d gone against the advice of our solicitor and taken up the medical Lasting Power of Attorney. We could then have arranged some kind of advance care plan that meant mum, whose dementia at the end of her life was advanced and contributed to her contracting aspirational pneumonia as a result of a norovirus infection, didn’t suffer in A&E for as long as she did before the medical staff decided her recovery was impossible. Advance care plans need to be set up on an individual basis, though, in consultation with the patient and their family/carers. Otherwise we might as well be back in the 1820s and letting the fairies guide how we treat people.
Digression over. Back to the book.
The willingness to believe that unexplained illness is the work of fairies is an interesting superstition. Nóra’s daughter Johanna seems to have suffered with depression and her death is explained away by the fairies taking her. I hadn’t thought about the colloquialism ‘away with the fairies’ that is sometimes used to describe those who have lost their minds, until now. Kent’s novel also made more real the superstition at the heart of Suzanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. Norrell brings Lady Pole back from the dead through a bargain with a fairy, in which she must spend half her life with the fairy. It’s told in Clarke’s novel as straight fact, but it can also be understood as Lady Pole suffering a brain injury during a temporary death that leaves her mentally ill – away with the fairies.
Nance Roche is touched by the fairies. She has knowledge of their ways. Although I disliked the harm her superstitions had on some of those she attempted to help, I loved her independent spirit. Kent paints Nance thus,
What woman lives on her own with a goat and a low roof of drying herbs? What woman keeps company with the birds and the creatures that belonged to the dappled places? What woman finds contentment in such a solitary life, has no need of children or the comfort of a man? One who has been chosen to walk the boundaries. One who somehow has an understanding of the mysteries of the world and who sees in the clawing briars God’s own handwriting.
Nance’s mother had a mental illness. This, too, was explained away by Nance’s father and aunt as Mary being swept away by the fairies. Things happen that are hard to understand and so we invent reasons. Sometimes we choose rationality, tracing an event to its factual cause, sometimes we choose superstition. For some, a lack of faith in God or a sin committed against him is reason enough. The boundaries between superstition and religious faith are blurred for the members of Nóra’s community. The old priest seems to have encouraged that blurring.
In the time of this story, the community has a new priest who quickly shows himself to be against the old superstitions. He is Nance’s enemy, warning her against continuing to offer keening services and remedies for ailments. His aim is to root out all the old ways, the superstitions and belief in fairies, and bring the community fully to Christ as represented by the Catholic church. He also turns out to be something of an enemy to Nóra. When she seeks his help, asking him to visit Micheál and pray for him to be healed, he tells her that his responsibility is “to raise the people of this valley to a morality that corresponds to the requirements of our faith” and that hers is “to care for this child and do the best you can.” If she’d only attend Mass, she would find comfort.
It seemed as though Kent was suggesting that the role of the priest was to give the villagers an alternative superstition to believe in, one that a powerful organisation in the Catholic church had harnessed to make money from.
The cures that Nance uses are largely nonsense. There are restorative properties to many of the herbs she uses, the chemical properties of which have informed the development of modern medicines over the years, but Nance’s cures are wrapped around with wish fulfilment and hocus pocus. Foxgloves are used on a child with selective mutism. Imagine how terrifying regular doses of digitoxin slowing your heart almost to the point of death might be. Whatever has happened to you to make you so anxious that you can’t speak, near death must be more frightening. Of course the child starts to speak again. Against other illnesses, that science currently tells us are incurable, the spells that Nance uses have no effect.
Reliance on superstition has tragic consequences. Nance fails to deliver a complicated pregnancy successfully. It turns out that smearing the mother’s belly with horse dung while she’s giving birth isn’t the way to go after all. Nor is repeatedly knotting and unknotting a red ribbon next to the mother’s head. Who knew?
I found her treatment of Micheál’s supposed enchantment distressing. Kent portrays the boy as a vulnerable child and I wanted to protect him from the awful things being done to him in the name of cure. I shared Mary’s anxieties.
The outcome is not the one hoped for. It couldn’t be. It left me saddened for all those in the past who have suffered at the hands of others because they were different, who were neglected, abused, shunned and killed. And also for those who needed to care for people in difficult circumstances, without the understanding or support of their community. How hard it was. How hard it still can be, even today.
This is a powerful book, vivid with the history it draws from and the characters Kent has created.