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Book Reflections – The Good People by Hannah Kent

There’s no doubt that Hannah Kent is a good writer. Her debut novel Burial Rites proved that. I was excited at the prospect of reading another of her books.

I found the novel The Good People by Hannah Kent difficult to read. Lives governed by superstition and grinding poverty, villages ruled by gossip and suspicion and no help from the state or the church. Consider the difficult life of a widow (Nóra) in that setting trying to raise a paraplegic grandson but fearing that he’s been ‘swept’ by the fairies. It’s grim, unsettling, claustrophobic and at times nauseating. If it wasn’t my book for book group this month I may have set it aside in favour of something warmer to help my commute pass more comfortably. A very good book though, written with insight and empathy.

Nóra reflects on a moment of rage after her grandson pulled out a clump of her hair

When she had slapped him she had felt on the brink of something dark, something she knew she would not be able to come back from. There was no knowing what she might have done had Mary not come inside at that moment, and it frightened her.

What has happened to me?

Nòra had always believed herself to be a good woman. But perhaps, she thought, we are good only when life makes it easy for us to be so. Maybe the heart hardens when good fortune is not there to soften it.

And this reflection on elderly women is timely. In Australia the number of homeless people is increasing and the fastest growing demographic of people experiencing homelessness is single women over the age of 55. An elderly, single woman, Nance Roach who is an outsider to the village, reflects

An old woman without a man is the next thing to a ghost. No one needs her, folk are afraid of her, but mostly she isn’t seen

According to the Australian Human Rights Commission

In 2016 the Women’s Property Initiative revealed that 34 per cent of single women over 60 live in permanent income poverty and by age 65, women retire with about one third of the superannuation that men accumulate.

If that’s the situation in wealthy, modern Australia, it must have been unbearable to walk anything other than the traditional paths available to women in the times before WWII, when women joined the workforce. Kent makes it clear the the options available to women in Ireland in the 1820s were very few, especially outside of the towns.

I will close with a nice summary from a good review in The Guardian

Kent has a terrific feel for the language of her setting. The prose is richly textured with evocative vocabulary – skib, spancel, creepie stool – and despite occasionally straining a little too hard for poetic effect, the overall result is to transport the reader deep into the rural Irish hinterlands. This is a serious and compelling novel about how those in desperate circumstances cling to ritual as a bulwark against their own powerlessness.

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5 comments on “Book Reflections – The Good People by Hannah Kent

  1. Anna
    September 2, 2018

    I enjoyed the book too for its excellent writing, but yes, the details of life in those times was rather unsettling.

    • strivetoengage
      September 2, 2018

      Hi Anna! Thanks for sharing your thoughts. What did you think of the ending an in particular Nance’s choice?

      • Anna
        September 2, 2018

        Do you mean Nance leaving Peters cabin even though he offered her a relatively “normal” life? I think she was too set in her ways and could never live with anyone. The ending as a whole was ok…. I really thought the ladies were going to be found guilty.

      • strivetoengage
        September 5, 2018

        Yes, I made a pivotal typo in my question to you but that is what I meant.
        I tried to imagine being Nance and making that decision. So tired, so cold, so old. I would have been very tempted to take the easy option and live out my final years with Peter taking care of me. I know that it would have been very difficult being hated by the villagers but the open road seemed to lead to death.
        I read that Kent based the book around a trial at that time. I too was surprised by the empathy shown by the jury.
        I was so angry with the priest for not providing pastoral care for Nóra. In the courtroom there was snickering because Nóra was superstitious and provincial but the priest and doctor both had the opportunity in the preceding months to tell Nóra that in the cities they had seen other cases of children developing severe disabilities like her grandson.

      • Anna
        September 5, 2018

        Oh yes, I was furious with the priests attitude as well. He could have helped avoid the whole thing but he kept her in the dark for his own benefit. He just wanted her gone so that the villagers would respect him more.

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This entry was posted on September 2, 2018 by in fiction and tagged , , , , , , , , .
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