“A Cuckoo in the Nest”: Hannah Kent, The Good People


This is not my son, Johanna had said.

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 Johanna 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.

Hannah Kent’s The Good People immerses us in a world in which life is hard, illness and death are familiar, and superstition (or lore, or folk wisdom) rules. At the center of the novel is Nóra, a widow left responsible for the care of her dead daughter’s son Micheál. Once to all appearances a healthy child, Micheál has become weak, inarticulate, fretfully miserable; he screams and wails all night and needs constant vigilance and care, including bathing as he incessantly wets and fouls himself. Looking after him is wearing Nóra out:

She felt suffocated by the constant neediness of her grandchild. He made her uneasy. The night before she had tried to encourage him to walk, holding him up so that his feet brushed the ground. But he had thrown his red head back, exposing the pale length of his throat and the sharp ridges of his collarbone, and screamed as though she was pressing pins into his heels.

“Perhaps,” she wonders, “she ought to fetch the doctor again,” but she has gone that troublesome and expensive route before and been told there was nothing the doctor could do for Micheál. “In the valley the sick were faced with the usual crossroads of priest, blacksmith, or graveyard,” she concludes–“Or Nance.”

kent-good-people-2Nance is a a healer and “handy woman” (midwife) who offers herbal cures and charms and other services to the local people. She believes (as do most of her neighbors) in the presence and power of the ‘Good People’ or fairies. Kent takes her time establishing how pervasive and powerful this belief is, distinguishing it from casual “superstition” and working to convey what the world looks and feels like to people imbued with convictions about threatening supernatural beings with designs on them–the effort they go to warding off misfortune and illness, the fear of missing a crucial sign or step that might have ominous consequences in their lives. “Sure, ’tis a dangerous time for a woman when she’s carrying,” Nance warns a man who comes seeking her help to protect his pregnant wife:

‘Tis a time of interference. Your wife is on a threshold and can be pulled back and forth. Either into the world we know, or the one we don’t. And ’tis true, what you say about the Good People. They are much given to taking young women. I’ve never known a woman to be swept into the fairy ráth by here, but ’tis not to say they won’t or haven’t.

The anxious husband hangs on her every word. “All will be well,” she assures him, “if you do as I say,” and her advice includes doing all the chores so his wife can rest, giving him “bittersweet” berries to “urge her into a deeper sleep,” and making a “cross from birth twigs” to nail over the bed to guard her.

Nance seems a benign figure at first, utterly sincere in her beliefs and selflessly dedicated to the well-being of others; we are on her side against the skepticism of the new local priest, who opposes her practices as irreligious. The stakes are raised, however, after she is called in by Nóra to help with Micheál. Nóra is convinced, and Nance confirms, that her daughter’s son was stolen by the fairies and replaced with a changeling; the only way to bring the real Micheál back is to drive out the usurper, and with the reluctant cooperation of the girl Nóra has hired to help with  Micheál’s care, she and Nance undertake a series of measures guaranteed, Nance insists, to bring this about.

Kent depicts the effects of their efforts on Micheál with ruthless vividness. If we haven’t already wondered if, for all her sincerity and good intentions, Nance might do more harm than good, now we are brought face to face with what, under a different explanatory framework, looks simply and horribly like child abuse. They administer foxglove, for example, which causes convulsions:

He shook in their grip like a rabid dog, his mouth rent open in a terrifying gape, arms rod-straight and trembling, and his head shaking from side to side as though in terror of what was being done to him.

They swing the child–wet from being dunked in a bath of steeped foxglove, freezing from the night air–back and forth, calling “If you’re a fairy, away with you!” When this treatment fails to restore the “real” Micheál to his body, Nance leads them to the river, where they plunge the “fairy-child” repeatedly into the rushing cold water: “She had the sense that the changeling fixed her eye as the water flooded over his face for the third time, bubbles streaming from his mouth.” Finally Mary, the young servant, rebels: “As soon as he saw we were on our way to your cabin,” she tells Nance, “he started up with the screaming,” which Nance explains easily – “the wee changeling doesn’t want to be going back under the hill!” “‘Tis a sin!” Mary cries out as Nance prepares to dunk the screaming child again, but Nóra and Nance are resolute, and as they hold Micheál under the water Nance finally sees that “the river had taken the fairy as one of its own.”

kent-good-people-3My attention had been flagging a bit before the women’s efforts to cure Micheál picked up the pace of the novel; I wasn’t sure we needed quite so much time and detail spent on context, on evoking the place and time (Ireland in the 1820s) and people’s lives without much action. In retrospect, I understand better why Kent balanced the elements of her novel the way she did: we need to arrive at Micheál’s treatment / torture prepared to counter the visceral horror it evokes against the truth she has set up, which is that to the women involved it is not abuse or cruelty but a good faith attempt to save a child they genuinely believe has been stolen by the fairies. The novel is not set up (as, for instance, Emma Donoghue’s The Wonder is) as a contest between competing belief systems, much less an interpretive challenge to us about which version of events to believe, the ‘rational’ or the supernatural. We do end up at a trial in which both Nance and Nóra are held accountable in ways that run completely contrary to their version. Though it is hard not to agree with the prosecution that they have done a terrible thing, Kent has made sure we see their actions as reasonable and justifiable to them.

What’s less clear is whether that is supposed to push us towards a kind of historical or cultural relativism, putting aside our condemnation on the grounds that they can’t be blamed for not having modernized, for acting as their whole community believe is reasonable under the circumstances. It’s true there is some dissent within that community–from the priest, but also from others who are not newcomers, who look at Micheál and see a “cretin” rather than a changeling, a sick child in need of care rather than an interloper to be expelled. Perhaps their opposition is meant to set Nance and Nóra up for judgment, but the affect of The Good People is mostly against that: Micheál’s suffering is vivid but so too is Nóra’s grief, and Nance’s increasingly desperate conviction that she’s doing the right thing. I would be more excited about the novel if it had been structured more overtly around these intellectual questions rather than mostly just depicting the setting and letting events play out–if Kent had framed Nóra’s story, perhaps, with the trial that results and integrated some narrative commentary that deliberately centered the dilemma of judgment and questions about whether change is the same as progress. I like my historical fiction with a side of exposition; I want not only historical colour but ideas about history, not left mostly implicit (as they are in this case) but as part of the novel’s apparatus. Still, The Good People ended up being a powerful and moving story: I’m glad I persisted with it, and I’m going to be haunted by Micheál’s pale face and sad fate for a long time.

A ‘Dark Love Letter to Iceland’: Hannah Kent, Burial Rites

burialritesI’ve gotten pretty cynical about book blurbs, but when I see a cover adorned with high praise from not one but two of the smartest readers I know, how can I resist the temptation to read it for myself? (In fact, it’s probably because I’d seen Steve’s and Sam’s reviews in the fall that the title caught my eye in the first place, though they both write so darned many reviews that I didn’t specifically remember that Burial Rites was among them until I looked closer.) We don’t share all the same reading tastes, so it was still a bit of a gamble; I’m sure they will be relieved to know that I too thought Burial Rites was very good, so they retain their credibility! 🙂

Burial Rites is based on a real incident that took place in Iceland in 1828: a double-murder for which three people — a man and two women — were tried and condemned. One woman, Sigga, was pardoned; the other two, Agnes and Fridrik, were beheaded. Kent has researched the people, events, and locale extensively, but she has the gift of telling the story so that even though the documents from the case punctuate the narrative, it does not feel researched but lived. Agnes is her focus, and the novel begins when Agnes is moved from her primitive confinement to a farm where she is to be held in custody until her execution. The family charged with keeping her greets her with suspicion and hostility at first, but as they live and work together through a long hard winter, they come to see her as a woman with a story of her own, not just as a murderess.

Agnes tells that story herself (the novel alternates between her first-person narrative and the omniscient narrator). It’s a grim story of a lonely, love-starved life:

Oh, my foster-mother is dead and my own mother is gone. And I sit on the floor, my legs buckled with the pure, ripe grief of an orphan, and the wind cries for me because my tongue cannot. It screams and screams and I sit on the packed earth floor, hard with cold, and smell the fish-heads, sickening, lacing the bland scent of winter with their stench of salt and dried bone.

She asks to see a young priest, Tóti, who becomes the “final audience to her life’s lonely narrative.” He is told by the local administrator, Björn Blöndal, who is keen to make an example of Agnes, that “she has nothing that you need to hear unless it is a confession.” But Tóti believes he can serve her best by listening, and in doing so he brings her at least the comfort of having been heard — not just by him but, inevitably in the close quarters of the small farm house, by her custodians. In the end, in fact, it’s the farmer’s wife Margrét who hears her “confession,” or rather her account of what really happened the night of the murders.

It’s predictable that, incrementally, her audience (including us) comes to believe, not just that she’s human and thus deserving of our sympathy, but that she does not deserve the death she is not, in the end, to be spared. Kent strips her of any pathos, though: she may in some sense be innocent, but as Steve says, the revelations unfold with “an utter lack of sentiment.” Agnes herself is both reticent and fierce, with nothing of the damsel in distress about her. Accustomed to live without hope or comfort, she longs for her appointment with death:

I am sick with finality. It is like a punch in the heart, the fact of my sentence alongside the ordinariness of days at the farm. Perhaps it would have been better if they had left me at Stóra-Borg. I might have starved to death. I would be mud-slick, stuffed to the guts with cold and hopelessness, and my body might know it was doomed and give up on its own. That would be better than idly winding wool on a snowy day, waiting for someone to kill me.

But when it comes, it is not better than the waiting, and Agnes’s spiraling panic is wracking:

You will be lost. There is no final home, there is no burial, there is only a constant scattering, a thwarted journey that takes you everywhere without offering you a way home, for there is no home, there is only this cold island and your dark self spread thinly upon it until you take up the wind’s howl and mimic its loneliness you are not going home you are gone silence will claim you, suck your life down into its black waters and churn out stars that might remember you, but if they do not they will not say, they will not say, and if no one will say your name you are forgotten I am forgotten.

The jumps from third- to first-person narration are sometimes awkward, but it’s compelling to watch the gradual convergence of what we know of Agnes, from her own words, and what those living with her discover. As the execution approaches, there’s a different kind of drama as these perspectives grow apart again — having now shared her story, they can only stand by helplessly as she travels towards her fate.

In her acknowledgements, Kent says that she intended Burial Rites as a “dark love letter to Iceland,” and in that ambiguous goal I think she has succeeded: the novel reflects in its subject and its language the harsh, dramatic landscape it depicts. Iceland appears to be having something of a vogue (or maybe it just seems that way to me because I just read The Faraway Nearby), but this is hardly the language of tourist brochures:

Now comes the darkening sky and a cold wind that passes right through you, as though you are not there, it passes through you as if you do not care whether you are alive or dead, for you will be gone and the wind will still be there, licking the grass flat upon the ground, not caring whether the soil is at a freeze or thaw, for it will freeze and thaw again, and soon your bones, now hot with blood and thick-juicy with marrow, will be dry and brittle and flake and freeze and thaw with the weight of the dirt upon you, and the last moisture of your body will be drawn up to the surface by the grass, and the wind will come and knock it down and push you back against the rocks, or it will scrape you up under its nails and take you out to sea in a wild screaming of snow.

In this particular moment the description is infused with Agnes’s desperation in the face of death, and with the prospect of her own imminent reintegration into that frozen landscape, but there’s a bleakness to the whole novel, and to the whole account it gives of the struggle to live in such a cold, wild, unforgiving place. Agnes may be a prisoner of the law, but all of the characters are hostage to the climate, to the dark and wind and snow that makes the roads impassable and life barely supportable for so much of the year. Kent excels at scene setting so that we feel both the physical and the psychic stress of the characters: the warmth of a hearth seems like the possibility of love, while emotional deprivation brings a chill that the warmest blanket can’t ease.

For all the novel’s strengths, though (and once I got my bearings in it, I read it with rapt attention) I ended up wondering if, beyond its compelling account of who, what, and how, it was driven by much of a thematic why. The setting and characters are well developed, especially Agnes but also Margrét, but as the elements of the plot work themselves out, I couldn’t detect a strong layer of meaning behind them. What do we learn from Agnes’s story — about Icelandic society or history, for instance, or about issues of guilt, innocence, and morality? Burial Rites didn’t seem to me to be about an idea: it’s about a story, about making the most of it. “This novel has been written,” Kent says in her author’s note, “to supply a more ambiguous portrayal of this woman,” who has, she notes, been portrayed by many sources as “an inhumane witch, stirring up murder.” The scope of the novel seems limited, though, to providing that alternative version of an individual character: there are only gestures towards systemic issues about, for instance, class or gender. Agnes believes she is treated less sympathetically than Sigga (her co-accused who is pardoned) because she is older and seems more knowing than Sigga. Inquiring into the case, Tóti hears that “she was always fixed on bettering herself.” But there’s no consistent sense that Agnes is really being punished for transgressing, either as a woman or a servant. The case as she tells it is intensely personal, and limited to the passions and jealousies of the small circle involved. Though its materials are rich, and richly rendered, it’s not a book that does something with them besides dramatize them.