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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Merivel: A Man of His Time by Rose Tremain

This long awaited sequel to the simply marvellous Restoration, picks up the story of the highly flawed and extremely personable, Robert Merivel, physician to King Charles II, only this time, it’s 25 years or thereabouts since we last met him.

18970894Well into his twilight years, Merivel, who in the first book enjoyed then lost the patronage of his king and went on a journey of self-discovery which saw him survive the Plague, the Great Fire and life in metal asylum run by a kind group of Quakers, is this time far more settled. His beloved daughter is now a woman; he has his well-managed estate to run and his ageing servants to consider and a life well-lived to reflect upon. Ever trying to find meaning in his life, Merivel, like the famous diarist Samuel Pepys, keeps a record of his daily activities, thoughts, mishaps, sexual encounters and triumphs, sparing the reader nothing. This is part of the joy of the man and the book.

Emulating the erratic syntax of the era, in that Tremain capitalises words mid-sentence, she also manages to plunge the reader into this wonderfully decadent and politically fraught time – stylistically, but also ideologically and emotionally. Whether it’s food, fashion, habits, religion, medical procedures or class structure, she recreates the late 1600s and the turmoil of monarchy and government as well as international relations and places masterfully.

Merivel may be older, but he doesn’t feel wiser. A sense that life is slipping him by pervades and so he makes the decision to travel to the court of Louis XIV, the King’s cousin, and see the great Versailles for himself. Always afraid of what he might be missing out on, Merivel embarks on a number of other adventures, and makes some rather interesting and, on reflection poor choices, in this book. In doing so, he learns his place in the greater world and the smaller one that is his estate and family. He discovers the real meaning of love and friendship and what’s important in life. The reader champions him on this erratic journey and our affection for this volatile but kind and very philosophical man deepens.

Including Merivel, a fictional character in real historical events and having him encounter actual personages of the time imbue the book with such immediacy and Merivel himself more relevance than he already has. He becomes our touchstone for both the macrocosmic historic events and the microcosmic ones we can all identify with.

As much as it evokes the period so beautifully, the novel is also contemporary in that the questions it poses about ageing and life are timeless.

Superbly written, with humour, pathos and such understanding, this is a gorgeous book and a fitting conclusion to Merivel’s marvellous life.

 

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