I love physical books. Aside from not being able to read e-books for any sustained period of time, I love the look and feel of physical books and wish every room in my home were lined with shelves that I could fill with a never-ending stream of new books.
Hannah Kent’s The Good People is one of the most gorgeous physical books I’ve ever seen, with the murky underwater blues and teals overlaid with a metallic copper leaf that partially obscures the title and amplifies the tactile pleasure that I already feel from holding a book. (The attached image gives you some idea but doesn’t do it justice.) The story itself does not live up to the physical qualities, however, and was quite a letdown considering Kent’s Burial Rites was one of my favorite reads of last year.
The narrative follows the point of view of three central characters, all women. On the first page, Nóra learns that her husband has died suddenly, leaving her alone with her four-year old grandson, Micheál, who doesn’t speak and doesn’t walk. Nóra goes to Killarney to hire a girl to help, and she finds Mary, the oldest of eight children who has hired herself out to help support her family. The third central character is Nance, a solitary old woman known for having “the knowledge” of The Good People — faeries — and their ways and cures.
Faery legends and curses dominate the story, as Nóra becomes convinced her grandson was taken by the faeries and replaced with a changeling, and she tries her own cures before going to Nance for help. Mary can’t quite decide what to think of the boy, who keeps her awake screaming through most nights yet also reminds her of her own younger brothers and sisters when they were babies.
Further complicating matters, the valley has a new priest who is less understanding of the old ways and less supportive of Nance and her cures than his predecessor. He is, of course, hypocritical in his insistence that she stop feeding superstitious fears for her own gain. He calls her wicked for talking of faeries and offering hollow cures even as he promotes his own holy water absolutions and encourages people to pay their dues to the church.
There were a lot of similarities between The Good People and Burial Rites: historical novel set a remote area of an island in the North Atlantic, women as main characters, those same characters accused of crimes. But where I found a deep sympathy with the main character in Burial Rites, I felt quite the opposite here, having none for any of these three women, save a bit for Mary, having been tricked into working for Nóra. Regardless of circumstances and whatever kind of sincerely-held beliefs, there is no excuse for child abuse. Full stop. It also didn’t help that I soured early on the faery talk, and the comparisons between folk traditions and the church were too on-the-nose. Kent’s writing style is beautiful, but in the end, nothing about the story worked for me.