Walter Scott Prize shortlist: Hannah Kent’s ‘The Good People’

 

So much for leaving Hannah Kent’s book for last, as I’d planned. Picking it up for a short peruse, I found it such an easy read I finished in a couple protracted reading sessions.

The Good People is set in County Kerry, Ireland in 1825. Beginning with the sudden, unexpected death of Martin Leahy from a heart attack suffered at a crossroad, his wife Nóra is left to mourn deeply the man she’d loved so dearly.

Shortlist read # 4: Hannah Kent’s ‘The Good People’

Tragically, the Leahy’s daughter had also died not many months prior, her husband soon after dumping at their doorstep his mysteriously crippled and seemingly mentally damaged son, Micheál. Born healthy with full use of his legs, developing normal the first two years of his life, Micheál is, by age four, unable to walk, talk, or otherwise communicate. He is incontinent, requiring constant attention. A maid, 14-year old Mary, is put into service to help ease Nóra’s plight.

Village speculation soon turns to superstition as friends and neighbors suspect the child is a changeling, either cursed by the fairies or taken away and replaced by this young boy who cannot do a thing for himself. A source of shame to his grandmother, Nóra keeps him hidden away. Only his grandfather, Martin, had had loving patience for the child. Now that he’s gone, Nóra loses all empathy, her focus on finding an explanation and possible cure.

The bulk of the novel consists of Nóra, village healer Nance and Nóra’s maid Mary working in concert, trying desperately to heal the boy. While the strong theme of legends and superstitions are at first compelling, the plot of the novel begins wearing thin once it becomes obvious the story has been completely taken over by a single-minded determination to reverse the suspected curse on poor Micheál. Though uncomplex enough to read quickly, I admit I did some skimming from halfway forward. The one-dimensional storyline could not support the entire novel.

As with all the shortlisted books save Mothering Sunday, The Good People‘s setting in 19th century Ireland is crucial to its plot and characterization. It would not have been effective otherwise. Had I not known the book was written by an Australian author, I’d never have been able to tell from its seamlessness and perfect voice that it had been created by a non-Irish writer. Full marks given to Hannah Kent for imitating so flawlessly the Irish voice.

 

‘Micheál,’ Nóra repeated. The boy’s arms were stiff and turned inwards, like the broken wings of a bird pitched from the nest. She called his name for the third time and he finally fixed her with an unblinking stare. His lip curled and she could see the glisten of his teeth. For a moment he seemed to bare them all.

Micheál had begun to scare her. Everything he did – his quick, unpredictable movements, his calls and shrieks at things she could not see – reminded her of Mary’s words.

He is a changeling. And everyone knows but you.

  • The Good People

 

The looming negative is the book is overly long, stretching out the story so far it becomes tedious. A second strong storyline would have gone far in creating the complexity necessary to maintain interest, as would greater attention to back story. It was too simple. I’m surprised it made the shortlist cut.

I cannot imagine this as the prize-winning title. Compared with Rose Tremain’s The Gustav Sonata, similar in its straight narrative execution, it comes up short. Tremain’s characters evolved, and the story progressed, in a manner much more compelling. Kent’s style, on the other hand, is very one note. Even taking into account the high quality of the prose, I was underwhelmed.

Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End continues to tower above the rest, Swift’s Mothering Sunday close on its heels – despite, again, it’s questionable qualification as a historical novel. It will come down to a matter of taste, either awarding the prize to a longer, more sprawling and complex novel or one that’s minimalist and equally well-written. I imagine the judges are weighing just that in the final stretch.

This leaves Jo Baker’s and Francis Spufford’s novels on my Walter Scott shortlist reading plate. I don’t expect any movement in my opinion.

One week from today we’ll find out if I’m right.

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