Review: Hannah Kent’s The Good People is a Devastating Read

The Good People by Hannah Kent

The Good People coverFormat/Source: Hardcover/Library
Published: September 2017
Publisher: Little, Brown
Length: 380 pages
Genre: Historical Fiction
Rating: ★★★★½
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I waited impatiently over a year for this book to be released in Canada. I first expected it in September 2016 (but that was only the Australian release date), then in December 2016 (but then it got pushed all the way back to September 2017). The book was worth the wait! I devoured it in three days. The Good People tells the story of three women – Nóra, a widow whose daughter has also recently died, leaving her young son Mícheál in Nóra’s care; Nance, the village’s healer woman; and Mary, a young woman Nóra hires to help care for Mícheál.

And at once Nóra, her heart fluttering at his screams, saw that the boy was not, could not be the child she had seen in her daughter’s cabin. Her eyes began to water, and she saw plainly the puckish strangeness that people had been speaking of. All those months she had thought there was a shadow of Johann about the boy, a familiarity that anchored him to her. martin had seen it, had loved him for it. But now, Nóra knew that nothing of Johanna ran through this child’s blood. it was like Tadgh said. She had not recognised him as her own because there was nothing of her family in the creature. He was a cuckoo in the nest. (140)

Nóra unsettled me. At first, she’s quite the sympathetic character, grieving for her husband and daughter. She misses the happy, healthy Mícheál she once met.  She seeks the priest’s help but he dismisses her, saying that Mícheál  has turned ‘idiot’ and that Nóra shouldn’t speak of fairies. After her visit with the priest, she whips Mícheál  with nettles, claiming she hoped to cure him, as Nance once used the method to cure Nóra’s husband of a minor injury. But as the story progresses, Nóra starts believing the whispers of the townspeople. The boy is not really Mícheál – he’s a changeling, and perhaps Nance, familiar with the Good People, can bring the real Mícheál back. I grew uncomfortable with Nóra’s behaviour as she takes increasingly drastic actions to be rid of the ‘changeling’. Thankfully, Mary brings an outsider’s perspective to Nóra’s actions. She emphasizes the idea that Nóra’s beliefs and actions aren’t right, despite what folk belief says.

The keener. The handy woman. Nance opened her mouth and people thought of the way things went wrong, the way one thing became another. They looked at her white hair and saw twilight. She was both the woman who brought babies to safe harbour in the world, and the siren that cut boats free of their anchors and sent them into the dark. (28)

The villagers play a significant role in the story. They gossip and fuel rumours about a changeling in Nóra’s household, then they disdain her further when she believes those rumours. The new priest, who wants the village to disavow Nance, only increases the tension. The villagers continue to seek help from Nance, as they have always done, but they scorn her afterwards and spread lies about her intentions. Even redheaded Mary frightens some of the villagers, Mary who does her best to protect Mícheál. Kent excels at capturing the nuances and hardships of rural life two centuries ago, at exploring how relationships and behaviours can be transformed by belief.  When I think about this setting, I often reduce it to a simple kind of life. Kent crafts a story from a rich history and time period and gives us a striking look into a different way of life, where people’s lives are just as full of story and emotion as our own today.

‘Oh, Nóra,’ Peg murmured. ”Tis no easy thing. As Nance was telling ye, sometimes ’tis better to care for the changeling in your grandson’s place if you can’t be getting rid of it.’ (253)

I recently reread The Witches of New York. That book features real witches performing real magic; I would call it historical magical realism. Here in The Good People, which is pure historical fiction, I found myself wishing the magic was real so that Nóra could be set at ease and everything could turn out alright, as she imagined it would.  Although I knew true events inspired this book, I didn’t know what those events were. In Burial Ritesit was well-publicized that the book was about the last woman executed in Iceland, so I knew that Agnus would die at the end. The conclusion of The Good People was a surprise to me.  What happened at the climax was particularly intense – I found myself holding my breath and having to look away from the page.

The Bottom Line

A bleak yet atmospheric read, The Good People tells the tragic story of what can happen when a woman finds no support in her community and has to cling to folk beliefs in the name of love.

Further Reading

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Two 2017 Middle Grade Spec Fic Releases

The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart by Stephanie Burgis

Aventurine is the fiercest, bravest dragon there is. And she’s ready to prove it to her family by leaving the safety of their mountain cave and capturing the most dangerous prey of all: a human. But when the human she finds tricks her into drinking enchanted hot chocolate, Aventurine is transformed into a puny human girl with tiny blunt teeth, no fire, and not one single claw.

But she’s still the fiercest creature in the mountains — and now she’s found her true passion: chocolate! All she has to do is get herself an apprenticeship (whatever that is) in a chocolate house (which sounds delicious), and she’ll be conquering new territory in no time…won’t she?

  • The cover and genre of this book appealed to me, but when I came to the plot, I thought “That’s a bit too quirky for me” and didn’t add it to my TBR. After positive reviews from Ms. Yingling Reads, Charlotte’s Library, and Random Musings of a Bibliophile, I decided it might be worth a shot.
  • The story itself is a simple one. The appeal is in the combination of elements not usually taken together – dragons, apprenticeship, chocolate making, royal politics and elitism.
  • Aventurine, being a young dragon transformed into a human, brings a unique perspective to this style of fantasy. Youthful energy and dragon stubbornness combine for some interesting moments in Aventurine’s human form. I enjoyed reading about her new found passion for the craft of making chocolate.
  • The relationships Aventurine develops as she learns to trust in the love and support of others give this story some warmth.
  • I would enjoy a sequel that features more of Aventurine’s dragon family and the difficulty Aventurine may face in balancing her two identities.
  • The Bottom Line: A fun bedtime read that served its purpose in distracting me from grad school life.

Race to the Bottom of the Sea by Lindsay Eagar

Race to the bottom of the SeaWhen her parents, the great marine scientists Dr. and Dr. Quail, are killed in a tragic accident, eleven-year-old Fidelia Quail is racked by grief — and guilt. It was a submarine of Fidelia’s invention that her parents were in when they died, and it was she who pressed them to stay out longer when the raging Undertow was looming. But Fidelia is forced out of her mourning when she’s kidnapped by Merrick the Monstrous, a pirate whose list of treasons stretches longer than a ribbon eel. Her task? Use her marine know-how to retrieve his treasure, lost on the ocean floor. But as Fidelia and the pirates close in on the prize, with the navy hot on their heels, she realizes that Merrick doesn’t expect to live long enough to enjoy his loot. Could something other than black-hearted greed be driving him? Will Fidelia be able to master the perils of the ocean without her parents — and piece together the mystery of Merrick the Monstrous before it’s too late?

  • Not quite sure where to start with this book. It turned out to be a lot more mature, and fairly dark, than I expected.
  • The details of Fidelia’s parents’ death alarmed me a bit. I had expected them to have died prior to the start of the story. The fact that the Fidelia had invented the submarine in which they died was tough enough. But then add the fact that she decided to ignore an incoming storm, when her mom explicitly asked if they needed to head in for safety… ouch.
  • I generally enjoy having adult characters interact equally with the younger main characters in middle grade novels. However, all the characters aside from Fidelia are adults, and most of the story is really their story. I often felt like Fidelia was just along for the ride. For her part of the story, she does learn to be herself again after the death of her parents, but the plot is driven by the actions of the adults.
  • My opinion of this book isn’t as bad as you might think! There are a lot of fun elements that made this an entertaining read – pirates, ocean faring, sea creatures, and Fidelia’s inventions.
  • The Bottom Line: Another fun read, but darker and more mature than The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart. Not recommended for sensitive readers.

Have you read any speculative fiction releases (especially middle grade) from this year? What are your favourites?

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Book Shopping in Seattle

A couple weekends ago, I went down to Seattle to see Depeche Mode (look how much restraint I’m exercising in not gushing about the show…….). I took time to check out a couple of neat bookstores.

Elliot Bay Book Company

Elliot Bay Bookstore Co.
Photo from Elliot Bay website

Website | 1521 Tenth Avenue

Why you should visit:

  • Stunning architecture
  • Extensive selection
  • Cozy cafe
  • Great hours
  • Lots of events

My experience:

Elliot Bay Bookstore Co. from second level
View from the second level (my photo)

As I only had about 48 hours in Seattle, Elliot Bay Book Company ended up being my number one bookstore to visit. It ranked high on recommendation lists; it was relatively close to where I was staying; it was open late on Friday when I had no other plans. Thirst was plaguing me, so for literally the second time in my life, I bought (and enjoyed :O) a tea from the cafe in the back to drink while browsing. As for books, I bought an autographed hardcover copy of Jeff VanderMeer’s Borne (which my sister and I previously discussed for Family Reads). The hardcover has a design element that the paperback doesn’t have. See the rabbit?

Borne hardcover

Mortlake & Company

Mortlake and Company bookstore
Photo from Mortlake & Company’s Facebook

Website | 117 Prefontaine Place

Why you should visit:

  • Elegant shop
  • Well-curated
  • Rare books and curiosities
  • Good prices on used books
  • Gallery with monthly exhibits

My experience:

Mortlake & Company cardI stumbled across this wonderful little shop during my many walks from my accommodation to downtown. I kept forgetting I had seen it, but I made an effort to stop in just before I caught the bus back home. I imagine I could return to this shop many times and find something new and intriguing on each trip. Too bad it isn’t in Vancouver! The selection ranges from folklore and mythology to alchemy and magic. I picked up Celtic Fairy Tales and The Mabinogi.

Celtic Fairy Tales and the Mabinogi

What are some of your favourite reasons to visit a bookstore? Do you have any bookstore recommendations for Seattle?

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