It is not all that long ago, 1994, that Frank Moorhouse’s Grand Days was disqualified from the Miles Franklin Award (Australia’s most prestigious literary prize because it was not Australian enough (he won the prize for its sequel Dark Palace (2000), which contains one scene set in Australia); apparently Australian literary sentiment has grown up since then, thank god – although the real problem lies from the rules of eligibility for the Prize . Here now is an Australian author, Hannah Kent, whose debut novel, Burial Rites (2013) was set in Iceland and now her second, The Good People, is set in Ireland: and still not a gum tree in sight. The only thing Australian about this book is its author; but that’s all that is needed, and rightly so, to herald Kent as a new, rising, and shining voice in Australian literature.
Kent paints time, place, and character through dialogue. The time is 1825 in rural, south-west Ireland where the Catholic Church is as powerful as ever but also where old Irish superstition and language is still rife and useful. All of this is established through how the characters talk: here a man comes to seek council from Nance Roche about his troubling dreams. Nance Roche is a wise woman who lives alone in a windowless, mud hut near the wood and who is said to have ‘the knowledge’.
‘Faith, what does it matter? I’d best be on my way.’
‘Sure, Peter, Go on home.’
He helped Nance to her feet and waited as she used the tongs to pluck a coal from the fire, dipping it, hissing, in her water bucket to cool. She dried the dead ember on her skirt, spat on the ground and passed it to him. ‘You’ll see no púca tonight. God save you on the road.’
Peter put it into his pocket with a curt nod. ‘Bless you, Nance Roche. You’re a good living woman, no matter what the new priest says.’
Here archaic English (“Faith, what does it matter?”), old Irish (púca means ghost) and Catholic salutation (”God save you on the road.”) all create the world of this novel: illustrative, complex, colourful, informative, and believable. The last because of Kent’s success at creating verisimilitude: the appearance of truth. You do not need to look up the meaning of púca; nor do you need to research the veracity of the use of the word ‘faith’ as an exultation in nineteenth century south-west rural Ireland; nor that the possession of a cool coal from the hearth of a bean feasa living in a mud-hut will soothe one’s dreams. As quickly as you read the lines the reader accepts this created truth because of the trust we readers place in the creator of such truth; when the real truth is that we are sitting in our reading chair scanning and finding shared meaning from little dark marks on a pale background. All hail our imagination and those that tickle it!
Kent has done her publisher proud: produced a novel with all the qualities of her first that prompted her global success and her publisher’s trust in her in the first place (it’s rumoured her earnings from rights, foreign publishers and the like, was $1 million); mid-nineteenth century far-western Europe in a valley of poverty, crime, women, faith, and fear, but with such differences that make it fresh and new, in tone, theme, crime, spine, and ending.
This is a story of three women: a new and bitter widow, Nora; a servant girl, Mary; and a feared and revered loner, Nance Roach; unwedded, unbedded, and therefore considered unworldly, but ironically, powerful despite the “fear of any woman who was not tethered to man or hearth.” In a society of family and neighbourily trust, tension and anger can boil quickly if livelihood is threatened: if cow’s milk is without butter, if a hen’s egg is yolk-less, or if a man falls suddenly dead, the inhabitants clutch at reasons, causes – be it four crows seen huddled together at a crossroads; lights seen bobbing on a fairy mound; or a cretinous child thrust on a widow who has no means to support it.
This is what happens to Nora whose motherless and afflicted grandchild is suddenly handed to her but who firmly believes it is the mischievous fairies, The Good People, who have taken her Micheál and left her one of their own. Her attempts to return the fairy to its own kind and see the safe return of her grandson is what propels the narrative to its tragic finale.
The belief systems, be it Christian or fairydom, give meaning to these ignorant people; the world is mysterious and explanations are needed for everything that ties them down, keeps them safe, or lifts them up. They need these causes of things to be certainties to allow them to get on with their poor and mundane lives; to keep planting their potatoes, milking their skinny cows, and harvesting turf to heat their hovels because their only other choice is to take to the road: the worst of outcomes.
Some readers have found the book depressing; yes, the story is sad, but the writing is evocative and succeeds is creating a vanished world, surreal almost, for the reader to get lost in so when the world of this valley is pushed into a civilized courtroom the reader too is confronted by the complexities and necessities of belief, survival, and what is true, good, and right.
I urge you to read this book. You can find it here.