Let me start by saying Australian author Hannah Kent was a mere 28-years-old when she wrote her first, and one of my favourite books, Burial Rites in 2013. I love this book for its lush, evocative language, its stark setting in the far remote reaches of Iceland and its haunting imagery. But what I enjoyed most was the chance to read a suspenseful historical novel based on true events.
Burial Rites, set in 19th century Iceland tells the tale of a young woman, Agnes Magnúsdóttir who is charged with the brutal murder of two men, and sentenced to be beheaded. Awaiting execution, Agnes is billeted with the local magistrate and his family. (Can you imagine housing a murderess under your roof for months on end?) Yet as winter unfolds, so does Agnes’s moving and melancholy story of love and betrayal.
In her second historical novel The Good People, Kent echoes Burial Rites with another unsettling story based on true events. The setting in an isolated valley in Ireland,1825, also rings similar. As does the richly textured language.
“But amongst the children she delivered who stuck to life like burrs were others who came too still, too small, knotted with cord. There were those who did not catch to the fabric of the world.”
When Nora’s husband dies mysteriously, the widow finds herself alone and caring for her young grandson Michael—an infant, who since his own mother died, can now neither speak nor walk. Rumors circulate that the Michael is a ‘changling’, accountable for all the town’s recent troubles.
Desperate, Nora seeks out the help of two women. Mary, a young servant girl who helps with the child and an elderly recluse Nance. Nance has long used the ‘old ways’ to rid the village of bad luck and superstition. Though her ways are condemned by the new priest Father Healy, Nora is resolute that Nance holds the cure for her ailing grandson. And When Nora, Nance and Mary attempt to take the ‘fairy’ out of the wee boy, so begins a vicious battle of faith versus folklore among the villagers in the rural Irish village.