The Good People
Picador $32.99 pb, 384 pp, 9781743534908
After reading her début novel about Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last person to be executed in Iceland, no one is likely to pick up a book by Hannah Kent expecting a frothy comedy set in a sun-drenched contemporary location, but even for the author of Burial Rites (2013) this compelling new historical novel ventures into grim and shadowy territory.
The Good People was inspired by an article about an unusual Irish trial that Kent came across while doing research for Burial Rites. As the London Morning Advertiser reported in 1826, the main witness claimed that the actions undertaken by the accused were not done with intent to harm the child 'but to cure it – to put the fairy out of it'.
As Kent acknowledges in an author letter included in advance copies, she writes books 'about dark happenings in cold places'. However, where Burial Rites gradually moves towards understanding, acceptance, and redemption, The Good People is far bleaker, with few characters left unscathed. Setting the tone for the novel by prefacing it with the lyrics of an Irish murder ballad from 1600, Kent dives deep into the murky waters of human nature, finding there is nothing so potentially lethal as the combination of desperation, false hope, and blind faith when added to grief, superstition, and ignorance.