The Good People by Hannah Kent
Published September 27, 2016
Hannah Kent’s literary debut, Burial Rites, blew me away last year with its atmospheric setting and strong, flawed female protagonist, so I had high hopes for her latest novel. Unfortunately I found The Good People to be something of a disappointment. Although Kent’s new novel is rich in historical detail and provides an excellent window into rural nineteenth century Irish life, I never fully connected with her characters and thought the plot lagged.
Set in County Kerry, Ireland in 1825, the story follows the efforts of three women in a superstitious community to heal one’s ill grandson. Recently widowed Nora, and her hired girl Mary, are informed by Nance, an elderly recluse who is believed to have knowledge of healing gifted by the fairies, that the boy is a changeling child, and together they attempt to restore the true Michael and banish the fairy child through folklore and rituals.
The Good People is impeccably researched historical fiction. Even before I read the acknowledgements it was obvious that Kent had thoroughly researched Irish history, culture, and folklore. The result is a richly detailed world where the characters, settings, and customs feel authentic. As someone who likes my historical fiction heavy on the history, this really appealed to me. I love that I could practically smell the turf fires burning, and feel the cold of the river in winter. If I had to sum Hannah Kent’s writing up in a word it would be atmospheric, and she delivers here again, evoking a mood that is tense with superstition and suspicion.
I also love that Kent’s subject matter is once again the every woman. Much of historical fiction tends to focus on nobility and the upper class, so stories written about the rural laborer and working classes are a welcome divergence, and an important one.
One of my issues with the novel is that there was no character I truly connected with. I certainly sympathized with the plight of characters in The Good People, but none of them grabbed me in the same way that characters in Kent’s first novel, Burial Rites, did. Women like Nance, Mary, and Nora all feel authentic and three-dimensional, but I can’t say that I grew attached to them, which prevented the book from tugging at my heart strings in the way that it should have.
My biggest complaint is that The Good People just doesn’t have enough of a story to tell. Despite being under 400 pages, it feels long. Very little in the way of plot happens throughout and the emphasis on folklore and superstitious healing is initially interesting, but grows dull after a few hundred pages of focus. Honestly, I thought The Good People would fare better as a (long-ish) short story or a novella, instead of the full-length novel that Kent has stretched the thin story into.
Even though I found The Good People a bit of a let down and would have preferred it in novella form, I’m still enough of a fan of Hannah Kent’s well-researched style and atmospheric writing that I’ll be picking up future works of hers, and for those who haven’t yet read Burial Rites, I highly recommend it to fans of atmospheric, character-driven historical fiction.