The end of the year and the most joyful holidays it brings are always linked to magic and unwritten superstitions. They float from generation to generation as a kind of an innocent game around the table, which means no harm. Just might help to hook up a sweetheart or gain an extra dollar but most probably protrude with laughter.
Hannah Kent, the author of Burial Rites, shows another side of believing in superstitions in her novel The Good People. It comes with isolation, lack of education and fear for the unknown and unexplained. Subsequently it leads to lack of sympathy, cruelty and even murder.
The Good People introduces the reader to secluded Irish village in the beginning of the 19th century, which still bears pagan mindset and follows ancient rituals. Though Catholic tradition is incorporated into their everyday life, it is still profoundly mixed with the belief into the Good People, i.e. fairies.
The plot of the novel rotates around three female characters, each of them representing three generations: the old eccentric hermit Nance Roche who has the knowledge not only of the herbal treatment but also of the fairies; a middle-aged recent widow Nóra Leahy whose husband just dropped dead while working at the crossroads next to a suicides‘ burial site and a young maid Mary Clifford hired by Nóra to help her with her disabled grandchild.
Nance is a not just a believer – she is the carrier, transmitter and the strongest defender of the old rites. She herself is a metaphor of old beliefs and superstitions: getting old and weak but still standing on her feet, trying to prove her right at any cost.
On the other hand, Nóra is just a follower and when the modern means (a doctor and a priest) don‘t help her in her hopeless situation, she turns back to what she‘s grown with, what‘s in her poor core rudiment planted by her isolated and gloomy society.
Meanwhile young Mary is of a quite different generation. She comes from outside the valley and she already has different values. Moreover, still not able to resist, she starts hesitating and her inner doubts turn her towards an opposite direction.
Three women come together when Nóra tries to turn her four-year-old grandson Micheál back to normal. Once a healthy and agile child of her daughter who died a year ago, now Micheál can‘t neither hold his head, lift his arms or legs nor spit a word. He‘s just wailing through the night, becoming an unbearable burden to the widow. With no objective explanation of how Micheál could have turned into a paralyzed imbecile, Nora accepts Nancy‘s verdict: the child is a changeling, i.e. the real Micheál has been taken by the fairies and replaced by one of their own. Now the only way to get the grandson back is to force the changeling to get back to his Good People. And the nightmare begins...
Kent has obviously made a great effort to describe all kinds of ancient Irish rites and remedies as well as convey the darkness that dwells in human hearts and minds. Perhaps too much detail impeded the reading making it tiresome and slowing it down. However, the steady rhythm of the unfolding story was inevitably treading towards the sense of the tragedy.
Yet the ending was somehow disappointing. Probably this ignorant hopelessness that circled the highest pitch of the novel supposedly required a much more sinister denouement. Or at least it was just my expectation. In any case, the emotional climax didn‘t drop down with a bang – it landed smoothly and safely on a runway with nobody truly hurt. Except it was a wrong runway.