Day 1206: The Good People

Cover for The Good PeopleBest of Five!
Hannah Kent seems to be fascinated with historical true crime cases. Her Burial Rites was about a woman found guilty of murder in Iceland. The Good People is about the inhabitants of a poor, superstitious valley in Ireland in 1825.

Nóra Leahy has had a year of misfortune. Not long ago, her son-in-law arrived to tell her and her husband, Martin, that their only daughter had died. He brought with him their grandson, Micheál, to care for.

Unfortunately, Micheál at four is not the bright, babbling toddler he was the only other time they saw him. He does not seem to be able to use his limbs and does not talk. Instead, he screams all the time to be fed.

Martin cares for Micheál and gives him affection, but Nóra hides him away from the neighbors. Then Martin dies, falling down suddenly at a crossroads.

The manner of Martin’s death provokes comment but so does the hidden child.

Even after Nóra brings home a hired girl to help with the work of caring for the child, Micheál seems an unbearable burden. Nóra begins to believe that her grandson was “swept away” by the fairies, the Good People, and that she has a fairy child in his place. She consults Nance Roche, an old wise woman who treats the villagers’ ailments.

Nance herself has enemies in the valley. In particular is Kate Lynch, because Nance refuses to help her with a piseóg, or curse, against Kate’s husband, who beats her. Although Nance refuses to deal in curses, Kate leads others to talk of strange dealings when things begin to go wrong for the valley. Also, the new priest, Father Healy, has begun speaking against Nance at mass.

All of this builds a feeling of dread. Kent has beautifully evoked the way that superstition plays a part in the people’s everyday lives. We know something bad will happen; we’re just not sure what.

Although I would have read The Good People anyway, it is a novel for my Walter Scott Prize project. I found it mesmerizing.

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Day 453: Burial Rites

Cover for Burial RitesBest Book of the Week!

Based on the true story of the last woman to be executed in Iceland, Burial Rites is an unusual and original novel.

Agnes Magnúsdóttir has been found guilty of the murder of her employer, Natan Ketílsson, and another man when the novel begins. There is no doubt that Fridrik Sigurdsson committed the act, but Agnes and her fellow servant Sigrídur Gudmundsdóttir have also been found guilty on little more evidence than that they were present at the scene. The younger, prettier Sigrídur, who was Natan’s mistress and Fridrik’s fiancée, is being considered for a pardon, but Agnes is not.

Because Iceland does not apparently have facilities for housing criminals at the time, the District Commissioner Björn Blöndal decides to lodge Agnes until her execution at Kórnsa, the farm of the District Officer of Vatnsdalur, Jón Jónsson. Agnes has requested that the young Reverend Thorvardur Jónsson, newly ordained, supervise her spiritual welfare.

Jón Jónsson’s wife and daughter are horrified to learn they are to have a convicted murderess in their house. Reverend Jónsson, known as Tóti, is confused, feeling insufficiently experienced for the task and unaware that he has already met Agnes.

We first see Agnes on her way to Kórnsa. She has been kept in a storeroom, living in filth and seldom fed, since her conviction. When she arrives at the farm, she seems almost subhuman, grimy and greasy and so thirsty that she gulps down some dirty dishwater given her to wash in. Slowly, through her hard work and unobjectionable demeanor and their own basic decency, the family comes to believe Agnes may not be guilty of the crime.

Although the focus of this novel is the life on the farm and the evolving relationship between Agnes and the family of Jón Jónsson, we eventually learn the truth about the crime, as Agnes confides it to Tóti and the family.

Kent’s gift is for depicting the hard life of 19th century Iceland—the merciless fate of itinerant servants, the prevalence of gossip and superstition, the brutal conditions and physically demanding work. Kent also describes the mental landscape of Agnes, her memories, thoughts, and nighttime dreams, and less frequently those of Margrét, Jón Jónsson’s wife, and of Tóti.

This novel is evocatively written in beautiful, spare prose. It tells a heartbreaking and haunting story.