The Good People by Hannah Kent

After reading and being so impressed with Hannah Kent’s debut novel, Burial Rites, I couldn’t wait to sink my teeth into her next one, The Good People. Like its predecessor, it is impeccably researched, this time immersing the reader in late 1800s Ireland within a small community that, when an orphaned child with serious incapacities is given to his grandparents to raise, finds itself beset with misfortune and death.

Focusing on three primary female characters and taking a true story for inspiration, Kent does a marvellous job of recreating the superstitions of a community clinging to pagan beliefs while trying to embrace modernity and the rule of the Catholic Church. For three women, the grieving grandmother, Nora, the young maid she hires to help her look after her grandson, Mary, and the “handy woman” and local healer, “Nance” the collision between old worlds and new, between faith in one set of beliefs and another, and the drive to nurture and protect is very real and painful.

Evoking the terrible poverty, lack of literacy and struggles of the small village in which these women dwell, the intimacy it creates – which is both blessing and curse – and the stark reality of their daily lives as they try to eke out an existence, Kent also manages to expose the beauty in their almost wilful ignorance; the way they embrace the magic of nature and the intrusion of culture (all while negotiating the villainy or good intentions of others), attributing that which they don’t or won’t understand to the “good people” or fairy folk. Convenient scapegoats as well as explanations for the inconceivable and painful, the “good people” are as much a part of their lives as their neighbours and the landscape from which they attempt to draw a living and life.

But not everyone believes in the “good people” or the powers and malice they’re purported to wield. Nor do some believe in the good intentions of those who cede to the fairies’ demands and desires, seeking to appease them. As Kent demonstrates, when two different ways of viewing the world and those who inhabit it collide, catastrophe and tragedy are sure to follow.

Heart-wrenching, mesmerising, beautifully written, I found myself urging characters to make different choices, to open their eyes and hearts. Flung into the midst of all this superstition – of the religious and pagan kind – as impossible and improbable as it was, as well as the way certain powers and vulnerabilities were abused for others’ gain, it’s both a relief and a wrench to leave it.

Simply superb. An engrossing and involved read that will leave you emotionally exhausted but lexically satisfied.

 

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Book Review: Shakespeare’s Rebel by C.C. Humphreys

I wasn’t at all sure I was going to like this book though I immediately loved the setting, the language and way the two worked together to draw the reader into the intoxicating, dirty, dashing and dangerous world of late Elizabethan England. Part of the reason for my uncertainty was the lead character, John Lawley. In some ways meant to encapsulate the “renaissance man”, albeit, not a noble or an aristocratic one, Lawley is a drunkard who, above all, periodically indulges in month-long benders and consequently lets down anyone17315211 and everyone in his life. He is also an expert swordsman and brave soldier who in the past accompanied Robert Devereux, the Earl Of Essex and the Queen’s young favourite, to Spain and was by his side during other skirmishes, thus earning praise and a reputation as loyal and courageous.

Despite all this, there is something not quite loveable about Lawley. He is neither rake nor rogue, ethical or ideologically driven. In fact, for a man who has done so much and has so many strings to his bow, as well as important and influential people on his radar, he is remarkably bland and, though you don’t dislike him, I found I couldn’t really like him either and that was disappointing as I desperately wanted to.

Lawley stumbles from one bad choice to another. Wanting nothing more than to work with his beloved Will Shakespeare and the players at the globe, prevent the love of his life and mother of his son from making a disastrous marriage, Lawley tries to pick up the pieces of his life and start again. His first effort is to get sober. However, with war in Ireland looming, and the Queen and her sidekick, Robert Cecil determined to use his connections to the Earl of Essex (Devereux) for their own ends, Lawley is just a pawn in a game he has no choice but to play – and it seems lose.

As events spiral out of control, it looks as though Lawley is destined to lose everything he cares about – his love, son, and reputation – even Shakespeare, his most loyal friend, is growing tired of his inconstancy, of his disappearances without explanation or apparent motive (the reader can get annoyed with these too). But we soon learn not to underestimate this man, even when in his cups, as Lawley has resources and skills that no-one (save his closest friend) know about and if he can just suppress his desire for whiskey long enough, evade those who seek him, and rescue those who need him, he might even get the chance to prove himself and, as the blurb on the book promises, save England as well.

This is a good book that has some really exciting parts and some, for me, frankly dull ones as well. C.C. Humphreys manages to capture the period so well. His use of language, the rich dialogue and manner of the characters simply flows and captivates. The streets of London, of Southbank, the wilds of Ireland and the darkened offices of Cecil and other grisly locations are all beautifully realised. The life of the actors and theatre associates as well as the inner workings of the theatre are also fabulously woven (not surprising when you read about the author’s background which also explain his wonderful use of language and why sword fights dominate the book). What dragged a bit for me were the sword fighting scenes which I’ve no doubt someone who understands fencing would greatly appreciate, but for an ingénue, they went on far too long and were hard to imagine. They interrupted the flow of the narrative. Likewise, the descriptions of Lawley on benders or the constant refrain of his desire for alcohol were overdone to my taste (pardon the pun). Likewise, the love story resolved itself far too quickly in relation to the tensions that were set up, but I am being very picky.

Overall, I enjoyed this action-driven book and really appreciated the way a period I am growing to love very much was brought to life.

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Book Review: The Elizabethans by A.N Wilson

After some quite shaky moments where I wanted to hurl this book from my sight, I ended up thoroughly enjoying and learning from A.N. Wilson’s, The Elizabethans, a rigorous and highly entertaining study of England and its people throughout the long reign of Elizabeth the First.

The book commences with a statement that rapidly needed explication: that is, that we are only now, in the Twenty-First Century, seeing the end of the Elizabethan world. Startled by this observation at first, I then understood what was meant, as in the first two chapters Wilson quickly covers Elizabeth’s disastrous campaigns in Ireland and attempt to oppress and subjugate its peoples before examining the beginnings of English expansion and colonialism in the New World. Shocking the reader with some cold, hard facts about E11733162nglish geographical growth and plans for domination (I think one of the terms used was “Seeding” – but that may have been another book) it soon becomes clear that Wilson is being deliberately provocative in order to insist the reader suspend contemporary judgement and the sins of “isms” (racism, sexism, classism etc.): that we view the Elizabethan world through Elizabethan eyes, politics, religious upheavals and belief systems and that we, as far as possible, withhold judgement (and for the sake of better words, “politically correct” assumptions and thus criticisms about actions and decisions – though this is very, very hard) and instead seek to immerse ourselves in this rich, brutal, decadent, paranoid, artistic and amazing time.

While I initially struggled with some of Wilson’s assumptions (and though he is an historian, he makes many, liberally sprinkling the text with terms like “possibly” and “maybe” and words that, as one chapter is titled (borrowing a quote from Edmund Spenser’s The Fairie Queen), lie “twixt earnest and twixt game”, sitting somewhere between fact and writerly elaboration) – let me give you an example of one of the worst.

It happens on page 207. This is where I almost put the book down never to pick it up again. In chapter 17, when writing about Sir Philip Sidney and Ireland, Wilson discusses William of Orange and the Protestant upheavals in the Netherlands:

“English involvement in the Low Counties was something about which Queen Elizabeth nursed ambivalent feelings. In the years 1585-6 the English soldiers serving there, and the people of the Netherlands, suffered acutely from an excess display of all her worst character traits – vacillation, tight-fistedness, hysterical rages. Presumably [another one of those twixt words] the ill-fated campaigns in which thousands of Englishman, including Sir Philip Sidney, perished coincide with her menopause (my emphasis).”

Yes, you read it right. I was astounded. Elizabeth’s menopause was the reason so many men died and suffered needlessly? Good God.

After my initial shock at this blatant, frankly offensive and bold postulation, I found myself reconsidering how to read and respond to the book. The information is wonderful, the scope wide and fascinating and the characters that people this landscape so interesting. Sure, Wilson peppers the history with his observations and witticisms and, frankly, obvious adoration for as well as somewhat misogynistic attitude towards Queen Elizabeth, but it was like being in the presence of a really, really knowledgeable professor at university who discourses freely around a subject about which he knows a great deal and isn’t afraid to offer his own opinion and interpretation of people and events. I imagined him pausing or raising an eyebrow, daring a response with a twinkle in his eye (yeah, I know, I am now twixting). In other words, I felt he was challenging us to think, pushing us to move outside known historical squares and ruminate on what might have been… even menopause, I guess…

Instead of continuing to be offended or concerned, I chose to sit back and go along for the ride, enjoying the gossip, his asides, the facts, the summations and learning more about Elizabeth, Dudley, Dee, Essex, Burghley, Hawkins, Walsingham, Marlowe, Jonson, Sidney, Harrington, Lyly, Campion, Raleigh, Burbage and so many more than I might have from a more, shall we say, circumspect book or author (and I have read and enjoyed many).

The times are beautifully evoked – from the narrow dirty streets of London, the sermons at St Paul’s, the lawlessness of Bankside and the Stews, the piracy and profligacy – and not just of Drake, Raleigh et. al., to the dreadful conditions of the poor who suffered more than any others through plagues and failed harvests and the ravages of constant threat of invasion and wars offshore. The religious schism of the times, the ideological fracturing that occurred and the people that both fell into and profited from the cracks that followed are beautifully and imaginatively rendered.

By the time I finished, I found I really, really liked this book. Furthermore, I liked Wilson and his historical chutzpah – comments about women and menopause and the attribution of blame (as well as other problematic and taxing statements) aside. That he concludes the book by referring to Elizabeth as a distinguished monarch (even with all her flaws and faults) who the British can thank for the country (or, I guess, curse) they live in now reveals the esteem in which he holds this woman of history, but it’s not an esteem that is without qualification or, as I said, awareness of her very real failings. Wilson wears his little British heart on his leather-padded elbow sleeve and I admire him for it.

Wilson is the sort of bloke I wish I’d had as my history lecturer – and I had some marvellous ones. If you want to take a confronting, rollicking and always interesting ride through Elizabethan times, then this is the book for you.

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