Hannah Kent, when I spoke to her about her latest book ‘The Good People’, said she suspects readers assume she has a fascination with countries that have hidden people, that is elves, trolls and leprechauns because her two novels have both been set in Iceland and Ireland respectively, where, the citizens do not deny the existence of a parallel population.
Iceland’s hidden people said to be ‘tall and invisible’ in contrast to the smaller leprechauns and fairies of Ireland. The citizens of Iceland and Ireland hesitate to disturb the Hidden or Good Peoples parallel existence by avoiding building in areas deemed to be populated by them.
‘The Good People’ is set in a certain period of Irish history when spiritual beliefs were a melding of the old and new. Many people such as the character Nance, a healer, believed in the old ways that acknowledged the influence of The Good People. Nance’s mother and aunt also had special powers. Nance’s mother was believed to have been ‘swept’ or taken away by The Good People.
Nance sees no conflict in integrating elements into her healing, both elements of the fairy faith and the prayer and ritual of the established church, even though the latter disapproves of the employment of old ways.
The book opens with Nora, the novels other major protagonist learning of the death of her seemingly healthy husband from a heart attack as he works on the crossroads. The crossroads are symbolic of the intersection of both the physical and supernatural worlds. His demise is therefore seen as unnatural, especially so, because of the recent loss of his daughter and the noticeable developmental difficulties of her young child, who has lost the power of speech and mobility for no obvious reason. These coincidences suggest a supernatural cause and growing belief that the child has been swept or taken by The Good People and swapped with a changeling.
Hannah said she didn’t want to be overly specific with the baby’s symptoms so the reader might reach their own conclusion of whether his symptoms suggest a natural affliction as his doctor concludes or a supernatural one.
Just like ‘Burial Rites’ the inspiration for ‘The Good People’ was a true story taken from the newspaper. The story and dialogue are an authentic representation of Ireland of the times. A notable feature are chapter headings with the names of the various herbal remedies employed by Nance to cure the changeling and return the original child. We see examples of the old ways throughout the novel including when a protracted birth is addressed by the symbolic superstitions of tying and untying of ribbons, the opening of doors and windows and the loosening of the pregnant women’s clothes, all presumably to aid in releasing the child.
Hannah says Icelanders and Irish, even those who are not strong proponents of the existence of the Hidden or Good People will not dismiss their existence.
Hannah Kent’s ‘The Good People’ is published by Pan Macmillan.