The Good People by Hannah Kent

Another novel I’ve read for our book club at work, this time a follow-up to Hannah Kent’s best-selling debut, Burial Rites, which I didn’t love anywhere as much as others did and found rather over-praised. Maybe it was the lowered expectations, but I ended up enjoying this one much better. Kent seems to have a penchant for the grim northern settings and harsh landscapes; Burial Rites was set in an isolated Icelandic community and this book moves the action just a bit further south, to a remote valley in the 1820s Ireland. The subject matter however is entirely different: The Good People concerns itself with the Irish folklore and superstitions, particularly the fairies, or the Good People, who according to the traditional beliefs belong to neither God nor Devil but exist on their own, mischievous and unpredictable terms.

The novel opens with a sudden and inexplicable death of Martin Leahy, a husband to Nóra Leahy, who receives this blow soon after the death of her only daughter. The immediate aftermath then introduces the rest of the characters, Nóra’s family and neighbours, a chief standout among them being Nance, a local wise woman who arrives at the wake to offer her keening (lamenting) services. Nance occupies a shaky ground in the community where she’s both a social outcast and yet is sought out for her knowledge of herbs, midwifery and the ways of the fairies. A new local priest however is not willing to be as tolerant about these pagan matters as the old one and could spell out trouble for Nance.

Nóra is also burdened with the care of her four-year-old grandson Micheál, once healthy boy who can no longer talk, walk or put on weight, and wails relentlessly through the night. Neither the priest nor the doctor can offer any help or remedies, and though Nóra hires a teenage girl, Mary, to help her with the child, taking care of Micheál is an ordeal and an emotional drain. So it’s with some sense of relief that Nóra accepts Nance’s diagnosis that Micheál is a changeling, a false fairy child swapped with the real healthy Micheál by the Good People.

To be honest, I thought that the main narrative of the novel – Nóra and Nance’s quest to recover the boy from the grasp of the fairies – felt too stretched out and maybe didn’t warrant an almost 400-page novel. Where this impeccably researched book really excels though is in immersing the reader into its claustrophobic setting, and vividly evoking the life in a poor 19-century Irish village. The freezing dirt floors, the diet of potatoes and poitín, the smells and textures, the tactile quality of life far removed from our modern world, the evocative language peppered with the Irish vernacular, all weave together to transport the reader. In Nóra’s world, there are no coincidences or meaningless incidents, if something bad happens to an individual or a village, someone is to blame – either for deliberate malice or failure to follow a ritual.

As for the fairies, I wasn’t sure until the end what sort of book I was reading – is this a strictly historical novel about the way desperate, powerless people cling to the superstition in order to deal with the misery of their lives? Or was there going to be a genuine supernatural element after all? I’ve been caught out too many times with gotcha! endings, so I wasn’t certain. Without going into specifics, the ending of the book did provide me with a certain jolt.

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

life_after_lifeLooking at the title, I presumed that this was going to be a book about the afterlife, something like The Lovely Bones, but in fact its meaning is one life after another. This book doesn’t treat death as final: its protagonist, Ursula Todd, dies when she is born in 1910 with the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck. Then in the next chapter and the next life she gets another chance: the family doctor who originally couldn’t be present because of heavy snowfall makes it to her birth, and cuts the cord in time. A few chapters later, five-year-old Ursula and her sister Pamela drown at sea, then in another life they get rescued by a stranger who happens to be nearby. A year later she falls to her death out of the window while trying to rescue a favourite doll, then she is stopped by the kitchen maid before she climbs the windowsill and lives on.

At that point, while enjoying the book, I thought to myself, ok is this going to be like playing a video game where you die and fail a level, then come back and pass the level, then fail the next level and so on? Because that’s going to get old real quick and this is a thick book. But the novel, thank god, was much more inventive than this. The early start-and-stop-and-start narrative is about the more straightforward perils of childhood, but as she grows up and has more autonomy over her choices and actions, Ursula’s many fates take many, wildly different routes. In one life, a kiss from a visiting American student ends with an abusive marriage, in another, a timely slap prevents a disaster. Romance that happens in one life takes another trajectory in the other, and same people and places play different roles in different chapters. Ursula herself becomes vaguely aware of her own alternate past lives, experiencing strange feelings of déjà vu and inexplicable dread, and a visit to a psychiatrist touches on the nature of time and reincarnation, handily visualised as a snake with a tail in its mouth.

Merely explaining the concept of the novel however does no justice to Atkinson’s empathetic, humorous and vivid writing, which brings to life complex family dynamics and life in England between and including the two world wars. Ursula’s family is comfortably wealthy and live just beyond the north London, in a leafy area not yet swallowed by the encroaching suburbs. While Ursula herself never quite gels into a fully realised character, probably because of her ever-changing life course, the novel has a rich supporting cast, of which Ursula’s snobbish and caustic mother Sylvie and erratic, free-spirited aunt Izzie stand out the most. The details of wartime London and its blitz horrors are harrowing and authentic, though the book feels less convincing when it travels over to the continent in a life where Ursula ends her days in the 1945 Berlin instead. Atkinson knows her England through and through, Germany on the other hand feels a lot more sketchy.

If I continued the earlier video game comparison, World War II is the unbeatable big boss of Ursula’s life; even when she makes out of it alive the tragedies it visits on her family leave it mangled forever. In the opening chapter set in the 1930s Germany, Ursula dies while trying to assassinate Hitler, and the closest the novel gets to “what it all means” is the implication that Ursula’s ultimate goal is preventing the war from happening. But the book remains rather vague on this account; there’s even an intriguing remark by one of the characters that perhaps a great evil happens in order to prevent an even greater evil (this in fact made me half-expect a version of Ursula’s life where Hitler dies but the future turns out to be even worse than WWII, but I guess this would be getting too much into science fiction turf). Despite this lack of clear resolution, this is a remarkable, rich, haunting book that I’d probably want to re-read down the track.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

mybrilliantfiendThis is the first volume in the Italian writer’s Neapolitan Novels series, and if the next three books are as good as this one I should make it to the end of the quadrilogy in no time at all.

My Brilliant Friend is set in the 1950s Naples, where two young girls, Elena and Lila, are growing up in a poor neighbourhood on the outskirts of the city. Theirs is the world of casual domestic violence and intricate power play and feuds between the various families; death, whether it happens because of disease, accident or murder, is not treated as a remarkable event. Elena, who is also the novel’s narrator, is a gentle, unobtrusive, well-behaved girl who most people tend to like, whereas Lila is fiery, intense and unpredictable. Naturally brilliant academically, Lila also grows up to be more beautiful than Elena, and the novel details peaks and valleys of their complicated friendship, as well as their coming into adulthood. In many ways, Lila dominates Elena’s life and their friendship is a transformative experience that is both a blessing and a curse. Elena, who is no slouch at school herself, has low self-esteem and is tormented by an ever-present feeling of inferiority, while at the same time recognising that no one can energise and motivate her like Lila does. Education offers Elena a chance of escape, but Lila is forced to quit school and work for her father the cobbler, and her path towards what she hopes will be a better life is of a different nature altogether (prediction: it will not work out well).

The book also paints a vivid picture of Elena and Lila’s slummy neighbourhood, with a massive cast of characters who can be a bit hard to keep track of, especially if you take a short break from reading (a helpful index of characters at the start remedies that somewhat). It’s an insular world, a point brought across painfully in one chapter where the girls and their friends go for a stroll into a more affluent suburb, where young people just like them seem like creatures from another world; or a passage where Elena realises that all she’s ever been reading was novels and she has no idea of what happens in the wider world outside of their cocoon. I think what I appreciated the most about the book is the raw honesty with which the childhood and adolescence are depicted – Ferrante doesn’t shy away from the occasional pettiness, cruelty and unkind or uncomfortable thoughts of the characters, or their complicated feelings about sex, love and male attention. Ferrante also has a wonderful, lucid writing style that never feels pretentious even when she gets wordy and reflective (kudos to the translator, as well).

If there’s any flaw I found it’s that, while Elena is a very believable, well-rounded main character (many of us can relate to having a more accomplished friend who makes your insecurities rise to the surface), Lila doesn’t gel into a real person until maybe the very end, and often feels more like a walking device – the foil and the centre of Elena’s universe, the rebel and the force of nature etc. It’s true that we simply don’t get to see inside her head as much as we do Elena’s but then none of the supporting characters came off as artificial and nebulous to me. Nevermind though, by the end of the novel I felt deeply invested in both characters’ stories and I can’t wait to read more.