This is an exceptionally well-written novel, full of mouth-watering prose. The imagery is luscious, illuminating and apposite - it brings the novel to vivid, pulsating life. I read it slowly, not because the story did not compel me - it did - but because reading it was like sampling fine wine or gourmet food. I could taste the skill and effort which had gone into making each delicious syllable of it and I wanted to savour each word.
The story is set in rural nineteenth century Ireland. The hardship of life is made very real - the cold earth floors in the hovels, the reek of smoke through thatch, the cheek-by-jowl existence alongside livestock, hunger and poverty. The small community gets by living hand-to-mouth, dependent on what they can wrest from the land and on each other. They have ingrained ways of doing things - ways of grieving, ways of farming, ways of faith. They are good people within the constraints of poverty and ignorance which life has foisted upon them, simple folk who follow their own established patterns of behaviour and belief. But are they the ‘good people’ of the title?
The novel is about faith - beliefs, superstition, religion, call it what you will. In this remote and backward society the Catholic Church vies with the old lore - belief in The Good People - fairies. Hannah Kent is so clever in weaving together these threads of faith in the minds, words and rituals of the characters. To them, the two are equally prevalent, equally valid and equally believed and they see no contradiction in praying to God whilst sprinkling traditional herbs for protection or carrying embers for luck. It is not until a new priest comes to the area that they begin to have this view challenged.
The story is a harrowing one. A man drops dead and his widow is left to struggle with her disabled grandson. Other mishaps occur in the community and fingers are pointed at the disabled boy. He has somehow brought bad luck upon them. Michael is described variously as a cretin, a paralytic and a cripple. The actual nature of his disability is not named but I assume he has cerebral palsy. Michael has not always been as he is now - something changed when he was about two years of age. The widow seeks advice from the doctor and the priest and is told there is nothing to be done. Nance Roche, the local healing woman, offers hope - she suggests that he has been swept - taken by the fairies - and replaced by one of their own; a changeling. And what’s more, she says she can bring the old Michael back.
Amid mounting suspicion, accusation and anger from the community, and the widow’s own increasing sense that she is caring for an impostor who is to blame for the deaths of her husband and daughter, the healing woman sets out to return the changeling to the Good People. The irony here is that in the midst of the good people of the community Michael is already in the best place he can be.