by Natalie Sprite
Fairies are angels evicted from heaven. They were supposed to end up in hell. Except that half way through the eviction process, God realised that if he kept this up, pretty soon there’d be no angels left. So he had a moment. A change of heart. And decreed that the angels still in mid-fall should became fairies. Not bad enough for hell. And not quite good enough for heaven, either.
“But good enough for Ireland,” an Irishman remarked when Hannah Kent mentioned this story in Dublin.
In 1825, you didn’t call them fairies, because this annoyed them and reminded them of their fall. Instead they were called ‘the good people’.
The Good People is the title of Kent’s new novel. ‘The good people’ might bring you a fortune, but they might just as easily give you the pox. Or send your cows wandering. Or steal your child and put a log in its place.
This last little piece of mischief is at the heart of Kent’s book.
The Good People is based on the real story of Ann Roche, who was charged in 1826 with what Kent will only say was “a very serious crime.” Roche’s defense was that she was a ‘fairy doctoress’ and that she could not be held accountable because all she was trying to do was banish a changeling.
Kent is cagey about how this all plays out, but you just know it’s not to end well. What she is clear about is that the child is not the only victim in this story.
The Good People is a story about women who don’t conform. “She wasn’t a wife. She smoked. She accepted drink in payment. She wasn’t of the church.”
This describes me, for a good bit of my adult life. And I’m grateful to live in a time and place that is kinder to eccentric single women than rural Ireland in 1825. They were hard times. And this is a dark novel.
Although you wouldn’t know it to look at Hannah Kent. She seems so much younger than her 31 years. She beams innocence and sweetness. She has the apple cheeks and flawless skin of a child.
But underneath all that shiny apple goodness runs a wide fascination with darkness. Her first massively successful novel, Burial Rites, was based on the story of the last woman executed in Iceland. She was a murderess. Her name was Agnes and she was beheaded in 1829.
Not all writers can tell a story to a room full of strangers, but Kent does it easily. And it is us that she talks to. Michael Cathcart mostly sits by her side, watching, while she pours her stories of fairies and bad wild women over the room.
There’s only one jarring moment in the afternoon – when Cathcart says to her, “So you signed a two book deal with a publisher for a million dollars.”
“I’m not going to comment on that,” she says and all the pink warmth leaves her voice. “But yes, I did sign a two book deal.”
“For a lot of money.”
“For more than the $5000 I was expecting.”
He readjusts, “I don’t want to pry into your personal thing. In some ways I find it very galling when a writer wins a prize and I’m supposed to say to them ‘what are you planning to do with the prize.’ No one ever says to me ‘what are you planning to do with your salary’.”
“What are you going to do with your salary, Michael?” She says, but she’s still clearly flustered.
He tries to reframe the question in terms of pressure, but she won’t be drawn. She is stubborn in her gratitude. “I don’t feel pressure when money is on the table, because I don’t write for money.”
Hannah Kent is a writer on the rise. Burial Rites has just been optioned as a movie, starring Jennifer Lawrence and directed by Gary Ross, who did the Hunger Games.
You can’t help but see parallels between her two novels. One of Kent’s friends recently accused her of trying to carve out a niche as “The writer of miserable people in cold places.” We laugh when she tells us this, but there’s truth in the comment.
Because even though she won’t tell us the details, you just know things are not going to end well for the ‘changeling’ boy. Something grim is going to unfold here. If a child is not a child at all, but just an ‘enchanted log’, do the normal rules of care still hold?
As one reviewer wrote, “I felt for the characters throughout, but I also wanted to bang their heads together and call child protective services.”
Because the tragedy in the book doesn’t come from ‘the good people’. As in life, it comes from good people, trying to do what they think will save them. What they think is right.
Natalie Sprite was shortlisted for the Australian Vogel Literary Award for her novel Grace Notes. She is the winner of several literary fellowships and awards. Her work has appeared in anthologies and magazines including Meanjin and Australian Award Winning Writing. She is currently in Indonesia on a 2016 AsiaLink fellowship.
Photos are courtesy of UWRF