Back in 2013, one of my favorite books I read was Burial Rites by Hannah Kent.
It may actually be in my top 5 favorite books of all time. Okay, maybe top 10. Which is funny because that same year, back-to-back actually, I read another book that’s up in my top 10 as well: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra. I highly recommend both books to everyone.
The main reason I find it kind of funny is that both of those books were debut novels. I love debut novels. A debut is a story that was two things: 1) The author wanted to tell that story so badly that they wrote it first (or at least fairly early in their career) so it feels important to them and 2) It was the one that was good enough to cause a publisher to take notice and put faith in a new writer by releasing their book. Earlier in 2016, Anthony Marra’s follow-up came in the form of a collection of linked short stories titled The Tsar of Love and Techno. Aside from the fact that Mr. Marra has an insanely great talent for titles, the follow-up was also fantastic. This definitely made me happy. As much as I love debut books, I get equally disappointed when a writer exhibits the sophomore slump, so Marra’s sophomore effort was very satisfying.
Because of this, I approached Hannah Kent’s The Good People with a little trepidation because I have forever linked her and Marra together in my mind because of reading them both so closely in 2013. I figured Marra’s follow-up was amazing, I can’t get so lucky and have Kent’s also be amazing, right? Well, imagine my elation when The Good People proved that very wrong. The book, like Burial Rites, is historical fiction and is a fictionalized account of a true event. In Burial Rites it was the days or weeks leading up to the last execution to take place in Iceland. In her new novel, Kent takes a documented event from pre-famine Ireland and does the same. I don’t want to say what that event is because it’s documented in the author’s note at the end so I don’t want to spoil it for you but if you do want to know I’m sure you can find out because internet.
I think Kent has a great talent for fashioning complete three-dimensional characters from nothing more than a snippet of real life information. I mean with Burial Rites, all she had was Agnes Magnúsdottir’s name and her crime. With The Good People, she has an equal amount of information to work from. I don’t know if this is her proposed path for all of her novels but if it is, after two novels I’m totally on board if that’s what she wants to do. Or maybe she’s just going for 19th century stories in each country that starts with “I”. I’m guessing next up will be maybe India? Italy? Who can say?
More specifically about The Good People, there are three primary characters. A young girl named Mary, a middle-aged woman named Nóra, and an elderly woman named Nance Roche. All three characters are given perspective, but never 1st person as Kent did whenever Agnes took over the narrative in Burial Rites. But even though it was never 1st person, a lot of what we got from Nance’s point of view made me feel as though it was and it actually had a very similar feel to those 1st person sections of Kent’s debut which is funny because Agnes and Nance are the only two characters based on real people.
I wasn’t as immediately invested to the story of The Good People as I was with Burial Rites. Granted, I had these dang expectations to cope with so I may have been a little too hard on it at first. In years to come when I reread I’ll have to consider this as I go through the opening part. That’s the other thing, the novel is split specifically into 3 parts. I can’t remember if I was still in part 1 when the novel really picked up and got going for me or if it had gotten into part 2. In any case, the opening was a little slow-going. The finale of Burial Rites also serves as the climax of the story. It is a sequence which always brings tears to my eyes no matter how many times I read it. The climax of The Good People happens with about 1/5 or so of the book remaining, so there’s a bit more fallout to tend with in it. I mentioned those expectations I had before, and this was another time that they caused me to be a little bit too critical I think. I loved the finale of Burial Rites so much that I don’t think The Good People ever really had a chance to live up. Again, when I’m rereading, now that I know the actual plot elements, I’ll have to pay more attention to what’s really going on to get a more accurate portrait of how I feel.
Something else I feel like mentioning is Kent definitely deserves some credit for the obvious research she puts into her novels. There are so many idioms in this book that there’s no way she could’ve made them all up. There must be many that she picked up from the Irish folks that helped her in her research. My favorite? Something like “many a man’s nose has been broken by his mouth”. That’s just lovely, isn’t it?
All in all, I enjoyed The Good People very much. As of now, it does not supplant Burial Rites in my top 10, but it definitely keeps Hannah Kent in the “must read everything she publishes” category and the book in the “will read again” pile.
Note: The link to purchase the book that I’ve got on here takes you to book depository to pre-order the UK edition because the US release does not yet have a date. I bought the Australian edition, published a few months back, on eBay because I needed to read it. You can find it there too if you feel so inclined.