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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The Last Hours by Minette Walters

Having loved Minette Walters other books, I was so looking forward to reading The Last Hours, her first foray into historical fiction. Set in England in 1348, it tells the story of how one resilient and clever community, Develish in Dorseteshire, survived during the deadly outbreak of the Black Plague, a plague that wiped out nearly half the population.

Centred around two primary characters, Lady Anne Develish and a serf whom she has nurtured over many years, the maligned bastard, Thaddeus Thurkell, it also explores the complex network of familial and other relationships that make up the immediate village and manor house – from the simply villainous and narcissistic Lord of the manor, Sir Richard to his equally vile daughter, Eleanor, to the various bondmen and their families as well as the alcoholic priest. How they all respond to not only news of the spread of plague, but the various threats that are set to unravel the lives they’ve built, makes compelling reading.

The novel starts slowly, introducing the reader to these various players in what’s about to become a fight for survival against overwhelming odds – and not just the sickness kind. As the plague takes its toll and the folk of Develish retreat behind the walls and moat, it swiftly becomes clear that healthy humans, and those forced into close confinement can often pose a much greater hazard than a ravaging illness.

When a murder happens among the cloistered community, only quick and drastic action prevents a greater travesty occurring.

Left with no choice but to seek both news and vitals beyond Develish’s boundaries, and led by Thaddeus, an exiled group join the brutal, devastated wider world that’s been ravaged by the plague. In the meantime, those they’ve left behind who look to Lady Anne for leadership and so much more, are forced to deal with not only their own doubts and fears, but the murderous intentions of other survivors who see the plague as an opportunity for exploitation.

The premise of this story reminded me very much of Geraldine Brooks’ magnificent Year of Wonders (still one of my all-time favourite books), a tale based on the true story of the brave souls who voluntarily quarantined themselves in order to prevent the spread of plague in 1665. But there the comparison ends. The people of Develish don’t quarantine themselves for the sake of others, but to save their own skin – not that there is anything wrong with that.

Establishing the personalities, weaknesses and strengths of the various players early, I found myself mostly investing in them. Where I struggled was in the glaring anachronisms around Lady Anne’s approach to not only health and hygiene but religion and class structures. I’ve not doubt there were exceptions to the strict rules and governance of the day, only Lady Anne seemed to buck, resist and rise above every accepted religious, social and hygiene standard set by the culture and period. This meant that most of her approaches to people and household habits smacked of 21st Century mores and notions. Part of me quite enjoyed the justification for some of her “modern” motivations and rules, that made Develish such an exceptional place, but when set against the misogynistic attitudes of first her husband and, later, what would have been ingrained in so many people – men and women – she became a medieval superhero and the tolerance and understanding extended to her by those who looked to her for leadership, more than remarkable for the time. Again, it’s always beautifully rationalised, I just didn’t always swallow it, as much as I wanted to. Lady Anne was so good, and right and smart and bold, yet also marvellously strategic, she almost (almost) became two-dimensional – and it’s testimony to Walter’s writing that she didn’t.

Where this didn’t work quite so well was in the portrayal of Lady Anne’s husband, Sir Richard. Frankly, what an utter arse without any redeeming qualities whatsoever and who just becomes worse and worse as the novel progresses and his behaviours are uncovered. How anyone, even a Norman steward can show loyalty to such a buffoon when other options are available and commons sense dictates otherwise, is a stretch.

Likewise, the daughter, Eleanor. Once more, Walters is at pains to explain and justify her putrid behaviour. Problem is, she was so damn selfish and awful, she was more a caricature and device for showing other characters’ goodness and faults than a real person.

Still, I enjoyed many of the scenes with both these characters and learning how their utterly selfish motivations and unreasonable demands were subtly overturned.

My main beef with the book was how it ended. I wished I’d known this wasn’t a complete book in itself. No. It is part of a series. I found it fairly confusing towards the final pages, particularly those inserted to give you a taste of what’s to follow. I found they made little sense and made me cross rather than longing to learn more!

Overall, the period and the English countryside and rules and regulations governing English manors and lands and how fiefdoms were controlled is well-established and fascinating, as is the ghastly way in which the plague affected people and how its spread was managed. Religion is not treated kindly and nor are the upper classes who don’t seem to have one redeemable character among them – I struggled a bit with both of these depictions, particularly as religion was the world-view then and to dissent or hold alternate (and very contemporary views) was to be a heretic and risk the salvation of the soul. Atheism might have been around, as was alternate ways of thinking about God, but again, putting all these views and arguments in the mouth and mind of mainly one character – and one who grew up in a nunnery – was sometimes difficult to go along with.

The story, once it really starts, is suspenseful and there are times I was flipping pages to find out what was happening. It’s some of the main and subsidiary characters that caused me problems in terms of completely suspending my disbelief (which I am very happy to do). They appeared to have been invented in our century and sent back in time to educate, elucidate and rescue those deemed worthy or smart enough to understand redemption comes in other forms.

The writing is, at all times, lovely and compelling and I will keep an eye out for the next instalment in this series – presumably, the hours after these last ones!

 

 

 

 

 

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The Wonder by Emma Donoghue

This book was recommended to me by a dear friend with whom I often exchange reading ideas. Actually, she was staying with me as she was finishing this and I watched as she gasped, sighed and looked altogether satisfied with what she was reading, barely able to put the novel down. She didn’t need many words to persuade me to enjoy this book as well.

When I first simgres-1tarted reading this tale, I wasn’t sure I was going to enjoy it. Based on true stories of “fasting girls” from history, those who refused food and remained alive, claiming it was God’s work, this is a about an eleven-year old, clever and very sweet Irish girl who, though not eating for months, remains alive, claiming to be nourished by God. A British nurse, Lib, along with a Catholic nun, is sent to remain by her bedside for a fortnight to see whether or not the girl is fraudulent or a miracle. The story of what happens is told through Lib’s eyes.

To be sure (couldn’t resist), the writing was lovely, lyrical, and it was easy to be swept away by vivid descriptions of the Irish midlands, the brusqueness and almost fanatical devotion of the locals and the resistance to the British woman’s presence among them and the suspicion she brings in her wake.

Now that I have finished the book, it’s hard to remember why I felt that way. I think it might have been the religiosity underpinning the tale, the blind faith and the painful accuracy with which this was painted. It is frustrating indeed. Though, having said that, the wonderful superstition and pagan practices that were still extant in this period were marvellously realised. The reader sees the family, the wee girl at the heart, and the neighbours and local authorities who believe this child is God’s proof on earth, and their desperate need for God to be among them. Even the reporters sent to cover the story, err on the side of believing – with one exception, whom Lib befriends. Even so, the scope – in terms of setting – of the book is narrow. Almost all the scenes take place in the tiny, bare cottage of the family, the small hotel room of the nurse, or upon the wild bogs. There’s a sense of suffocation, especially as the child begins to become frail and weak and everyone remains in almost wilful denial about what’s happening.

As Lib’s frustration and confusion about what’s happening grows (is it a hoax or real?), she is uncertain who to turn to – is the nun is an enemy or friend? Is the reporter, who appears to share her cynicism to be trusted or is he just after a scoop?

The further I went into the narrative, the harder I found to leave until, like my girlfriend, I was gasping, sighing and unable to tear myself away.

Superbly written and, I realise, paced, this is a suspenseful, cloying yet stunning tale of faith, stubbornness, necessity, trust and betrayal.

Highly recommended.

 

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Pepy’s London: Everyday Life in London 1650-1703 by Stephen Porter

11987791Short, sharp and interesting, if sometimes a little dryer than the title might suggest, Porter’s brief history of London as it was immediately after the execution of Charles I, throughout the Interregnum and Oliver Cromwell’s reign, the leadership (!) of Richard Cromwell to the restoration of Charles II, James II’s time on the throne, the Glorious Revolution and the beginnings of the reign of William and Mary, is packed full of facts and observations.

Though the title suggests this is London as Samuel Pepys experienced and wrote about it, it’s more than that. It’s also a London on the brink of religious and political upheavals as suspicion and faith caused many tensions and riots. It’s a city enduring and moving with swiftly changing economic circumstances and robust and exciting scientific discoveries, as well as a place that was culturally enterprising and rich, as theatre, music, writing and art underwent another Renaissance.

Using Pepy’s life as a yardstick by which to measure the altering moods and landscape of the city, Porter offers a keen insight into the various people and events that helped to fashion London into what it is today. Whether it was intolerance for immigrants, appreciation and exploitation of other cultures, growing literacy, expanding borders as the Empire grew, trade, war, frosts, plague or fire, what is clear is that London was rarely if ever dull – whether you were gentry or from the lower classes.

The just over half a century covered really does encompass an amazing array of transformations  – and not just in terms of leaders and governing styles. Porter is such a good historian, my only beef with the book is that it is so dry at times and when you use the name Pepys in the title, I think it’s dryer than it has a right to be! Nonetheless, I thoroughly enjoyed this great overview. The illustrations are also terrific and really well explained.

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Sisters of the Fire by Kim Wilkins

29937614The second book in the Blood and Gold series, Sister of the Fire is set a few years after the thrilling events of the first book, Daughters of the Storm, conclude. Once more, we’re drawn into the lives of the five very different sisters as they hurdle towards their unknown and dark destinies. Whether it’s the fierce and loyal Bluebell who’s on a mission to locate a sword that’s been crafted for the purpose of slaying her and which she fears one of her sister’s possesses; or forlorn Rose, the princess set aside by her Trimartyr husband, King Wengest, and who’s forced to live away from the man she loves and with her aunt and son – that is, until she learns the life of her daughter, the indefatigable Rowan, is in danger. We also follow the struggles of Ash as she comes to terms with the terrible power she wields, the fate she sees for the realm and will do anything to prevent. Then there are the twins, Ivy and Willow. Weak and ineffectual in comparison to her sisters, Ivy has been given in marriage to a man she doesn’t love and whose chronic illness threatens to unbalance the city she holds in care for her beloved sons. Then there’s the zealot, Willow. Having turned her back on the faith she was born into, Willow has become a warrior-priestess for Maava and, in her efforts to prove herself worthy of her cruel god’s love, will do anything – even betray the family and kingdom who remain steadfast to her.

Vast in scope and setting (the reader is taken from rocky shores, craggy islands, deserted towns, bustling cities to mystical forests and arcane castles), Sisters of the Storm is a tour de force of the imagination. Each of the main women in the story, and the men who either exploit or love them fearlessly, as well as the children the women love unconditionally (if not always well), are masterfully realised and sometimes brutally rendered. Wilkins doesn’t shy away from exposing their great strengths and tragic and even irritating weaknesses. You believe in these people, these flawed, majestic beings and the goals they pursue, and their need to forge or at least control their fates to the best of their ability. Just as they love with great ardour and conviction, so the reader does too, as we segue from one sister’s path before stumbling upon another’s, championing their individual or collective causes or mourning their dreadful decisions. The prose is evocative, moving and, at time, violent.

There’s no doubt, Wilkins, as story-teller par excellence, has a flair with words – a few well chosen ones conjure the depths of despair, the ache of maternal or passionate love, the fury of betrayal. Likewise, landscape is rendered minimally but with no less impact. You hear the ocean, smell the forest, and enter the bloody battles with your heart racing and your senses afire. The novel is imbued with wildness, mystery and beauty and these are carried through every page of this marvellous conclusion to a terrific series.

I also appreciated the fact that as you reach the final lines, not all doors are closed, not all paths end. I hope Wilkins returns one day to tell more tales about these divergent, complex sisters’ and their families, and the epic, but always recognisable world she’s created.

PS. I also have to say, I think the cover is simply stunning and reflects the contents beautifully…

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