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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Last Rituals by Ysra Sigurdardottir

Continuing my love affair with Nordic Noir, I picked up this book, Last Rituals, by an author I hadn’t yet read, Ysra Sigurdardottir. Commencing with a suitably grisly discovery, when a young German student’s body is found on a university campus, sans eyes and with eerie markings inscribed on his body, the reader is introduced to Thora Gudmundsdottir, a lawyer who is hired by the family of the young man to investigate his death. While a suspect has been placed in custody, the family don’t believe he’s the culprit. Teaming up with a man sent from Germany to support her investigation, the blunt and seemingly humourless, Matthew Reich, Thora and her new partner uncover not only fascinating aspects of Iceland’s history, but the victim’s enthrallment with the occult. From ancient caves and supernatural and other traditions, burial rights, superstitions and precious documents worth a fortune and which could change history, Thora and Matthew become immersed in a deadly game of hide and seek, power, lies and deception, all tinged with witchcraft and dark magic. Can they break the spell hanging over this case or will they too fall victim to the forces arraigned against them?

What I really enjoy about Nordic Noir is the emphasis on character as much as plot and this book is no exception. As the investigation continues and clues and dead-ends are explored, the reader is invited to get to know single-mother, Thora, and her children and familial life better as well as the professional and slow-burning personal relationship she builds with Max.

History and the wild and majestic Icelandic landscape become as much characters in this book as the murder investigation, adding richness and depth to the sometimes staccato scene changes and otherwise excellent dialogue.

Slow but rewarding, I look forward to more in this series.

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Book Review: Lamentation by C.J. Sansom

The MattheLamentation (Matthew Shardlake, #6)w Shardlake series of novels, about a hunchback lawyer practicing in the time of Henry VIII, are simply wonderful and this, the sixth in the series, does not disappoint.

After a horrible and explosive beginning, the story unfolds slowly but effortlessly, immersing the reader back in not only Henry VII’s final months, but also Shardlake’s life and law practice.

It’s autumn 1546, and King Henry, obese and quite disabled, is nearing death. Aware of this, the mercurial king, who forced his country from Catholicism and the yoke of Rome to Protestantism, dissolving the monasteries, claiming their vast wealth and punishing those who refused to acknowledge his supremacy over the new church, is once again undergoing an existential crisis. Vacillating between Popery and Protestantism, a struggle based on religious principles begins and those behind the throne with the greatest to win or lose begin to make their move. Henry may be dying, but he is powerful and vindictive, sending friends and foe to the Tower with ease, for if there’s one thing he can’t abide it’s those he perceives as disloyal, and keeping secrets is among the worst of sins.

When Protestant Queen Katherine discovers a book she’s written called Lamentation, and which describes her personal and Protestant religious beliefs, has been stolen, she is panic-stricken. Knowing her faith goes against that held by her husband and that there are those on his council plotting her downfall, the book could be the exact weapon they need. Keeping the book and its theft secret from the king, she summons Shardlake to her side and begs his help.

Unable to resist his queen, Shardlake knows discovering who has stolen the book will not only be difficult, but very, very dangerous. When bodies start to pile up, his greatest fears are realised, only the terrible threat to him and those he loves is yet to materialise…

This is a marvellous story that plunges you into late medieval London and doesn’t let you go. Sansom takes his time with the story, allowing it to time to evolve, walking the reader through the familiar and pungent streets of Shardlake’s neighbourhood and other parts of London, the cloisters of various palaces, or taking us on uncomfortable rides outside the city walls. We feel the hot breath of summer, the discomfort of the fabrics as they cling to sweaty limbs, the stink of the river, and the fear of darkness and those who lurk in the shadows, watching and waiting.

Evoking this period and the terror, suspicion and religious persecution that accompanied it, as well as the fight for supremacy in the court and kingdom, Sansom has written a wonderful historical and crime novel that nonetheless still manages to capture not only the era, but Shardlake’s personal life and his complex but kind and intelligent character.  Other characters are also beautifully drawn and we empathise with their efforts and troubles as well as enjoy their triumphs. A wonderful secondary narrative about two squabbling and vile siblings is also very well executed.

I was absorbed in this tale that on occasion made me gasp with horror and genuinely fear for characters. Without spoiling the story, the last pages of the novel were both an ending and beginning, but I sincerely hope we haven’t seen the last of Shardlake yet. The author’s notes at the end are also a marvellous read, revealing not only Sansom’s level of research, but his dedication to and passion for crafting a compelling tale.

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