Under a harrowing spell: Hannah Kent’s new book tells a dark Irish fairy tale, writes Michele Magwood
Published in the Sunday Times
It is as well that young Australian writer Hannah Kent ignored the old canard to “write what you know”. Her first book Burial Rites was set on a farm in remote northwest Iceland in 1829. It tells the tale of the life and death of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last woman to be executed in Iceland. Relentlessly but exquisitely bleak, it was a rare imaginative debut.
Her second novel The Good People is also set in the 19th century and, like the first, is based on a true story. In a valley in Ireland in 1825, a farmer, Martin Leahy, drops dead. His wife Nóra is undone by his death.
The villagers are uneasy that he died so unexpectedly at the crossroads where they bury their suicides. They are poor, uneducated folk, half-starved on a diet of potatoes, milk and poitín (the Irish equivalent of witblitz), trying to control the unknowable with rituals and spells, navigating their destinies by signs and signals from the natural – and supernatural – world.
“I avoid the word ‘superstition’, as I think it implies stupidity and ignorance,” says Kent in an e-mail from her home in Adelaide. “A lot of folklore is filled with wisdom, as much as it might operate on a system of logic or rationality that can seem bizarre or nonsensical to outsiders. I have great respect for Irish folklore and folk beliefs.”
Sure enough, misfortune begins to pile up in the village. The cows’ milk virtually dries up, a baby is stillborn and a woman accidentally sets herself on fire. And then there is Nóra’s small grandson Micheál, who she is raising, and who she tries to keep hidden from the community. He is “a scragged boy, with a loose, mute jaw”. His skin has “a thinness to it, like the pages in a priest’s holy book”. He drools and screeches and gurns incessantly, and because he was a normal baby, Nóra begins to believe he is a changeling, that the Good People have stolen the real Micheál away and left this “poor cratur” behind. The villagers believe he has cursed the valley.
The “Good People” are, of course, the fairies, and are hardly good. Forget any idea of twinkling, benign little folk. The fairies of Irish folklore are darkly capricious, even evil.
“The fairies were (and, in some places, still are) thought to be the cause of both inexplicable luck and misfortune,” explains Kent. “They were capable of bestowing great gifts and favours on people, and just as quickly ‘striking’ or inflicting harm on others. It’s understandable that people therefore spent a lot of time trying to stay on the right side of the fairies, to protect themselves from their malice as much as possible. They might pour out beestings (new milk) for the fairies, warn them before throwing out dirty water (so as not to catch them in the downpour), or refer to them as ‘the good people’ or ‘the gentry’ out of respect and deference.”
Nóra turns to Nance Roach, a healer and “handywoman”, a midwife. Some call her “the herb hag”. She’s a scrawny, decrepit old woman, steeped in the old ways and loathed by the village priest.
“I didn’t want to portray Nance as the oversimplified all-knowing mystic,” says Kent, “the imperturbable mother-earth, I-am-one-with-nature healer, so I tried to focus on her flaws, on her doubt, on her mistakes. Yes, she lives in a semi-wild state, but her isolation isn’t romantic, she is poor and vulnerable.”
Together Nóra and Nance will try to “put the fairy out” of Micheál. It is a fascinating but harrowing process that will culminate in a court case. It was the report of this court case in a centuries-old newspaper that inspired Kent to reimagine the story.
The Good People is an enthralling book, queer in the original sense of the word, densely atmospheric. It sings with the cadences of the people, and pulses with the natural world. .@michelemagwood
- The Good People by Hannah Kent
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- Burial Rites by Hannah Kent
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