Review – ‘The Good People’ by Hannah Kent


A lot of readers are going to love this book, I’m sure of it. Set in early 19th century Ireland, it follows a bunch of women in a rural and highly superstitious community who believe that a baby with a disability is a changeling (a dupe for the real baby, taken by the fairies). Obviously this is a really disturbing narrative, and it gets more and more disturbing as the women turn to the local folk-magic-witch to help ‘get the fairy out’ of the child. It’s dark and oftentimes violent, but Kent also fleshes out the backstories of the women and the entrenched nature of the superstitious beliefs in the community, which creates a weird and powerful dynamic where on one hand you are repulsed by the characters and on the other can sympathise with them (in the sense that you can see they don’t know any other way of living).

All that said, for some reason I didn’t connect with this one as much I thought I would. That is not to say it isn’t well written. Kent’s writing style has become tighter since Burial Rites; it feels like she has greater control over her writing at both level of sentence and of plot more broadly. But for some reason I was never made to feel as upset by the violence as I felt I was supposed to. I wonder if this was because the focus was on the women (the child’s grandmother, nanny, and the herb-doctor) and their stories and psychologies, rather than on the point of view of the child. And so sometimes the child itself took a backseat its own story, somehow.

The climax was really great, and really emphasised the tension between ‘superstition’ and ‘rationality’ (I use quotation marks because the distinction gets quite blurry), or the country and the city, agrarian life and institutional life. I guess I just wish there was more of this tension earlier in the story (the story is  quite long and it took me a couple of hundred pages to get into it).

Again, though, I think a lot of people will love this, particularly the evocative descriptions of the forest and the river and the mist, and all the incredible detail Kent has included about life in a tiny valley community at the time, which makes the setting really easy to imagine.


6 thoughts on “Review – ‘The Good People’ by Hannah Kent

  1. I felt much the same as you – wasn’t fully engaged or invested in the characters. Although I agree that Kent’s writing is tighter, I think this one lacked a sense of intimacy that Burial Rites had – perhaps it was because she was familiar with Iceland and Agnes’s story before she began writing, as compared to Nance’s story which she just happened across?

    • Yes I wondered the same! I loved your review, too – you really articulated the fact that it felt a bit weighed down by all the historical detail. I agree. I think I would have enjoyed it more if had been edited down somewhat.

  2. Pingback: October 2016 Roundup: Classics and Literary | Australian Women Writers Challenge Blog

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  4. Am only 3/4 through The Good People but just had to hit google to see if I was alone in my misgivings (I’ve studiously avoided reviews of the book until now). I loved Burial Rites but just feel very unengaged by this one – I’ll trudge through to the end now but it does feel like a job rather than a delight as reading ought to do.

    • Isn’t it funny! A few people seem to have had the same response. But then, others have adored this book. I agree with you, Bernadette – I slogged through the first half of this book but I quite enjoyed the court case at the end where some of themes came together.

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