The Good People – Hannah Kent: Lavinia’s Book Pick, June 2018

I recently enjoyed a lovely holiday out in the wilds, and Hannah Kent’s The Good People was the perfect read for the occasion – though I struggle to think of an occasion for which The Good People would be unfitting. It tells the story of a rural community in Ireland in the early nineteenth century. A community struck by a series of misfortunes, one of which includes a mute and ailing three-year-old boy, Micheál. In a tight-knit community, the gossip begins to spread as to the cause of this bad luck, and religion, community and ancient folklore wind together to a conclusion that is as troubling as it is inevitable.

the good people

The book is wonderful: immersive, detailed, tense. You get such a strong sense of the harshness of the way of life, and it’s easy to get drawn in to the beliefs of the community, especially when they often feel like the language for talking about the everyday misfortunes of a rural life without modern medicine. We follow Nóra, the bitterly grieving widow, Mary, the girl hired to help her in the house, and Nance, the local ‘wise woman’, peddling herbal cures and other unorthodox remedies that – according to the community’s own report – seem nonetheless to help more than they harm.

I would strongly recommend this book to all!

You’ll love this book if: 
– You have an interest in folklore
– You like an immersive historical novel

You might want to avoid this book if:
– You’re not interested in detailed descriptions of past ways of life
– You don’t like reading stories about people who are physically uncomfortable most of the time

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The Wonder – Emma Donoghue

Rating: 5 stars

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Yet another of my recent railway station purchases, I picked up The Wonder because I loved the film of Room, Emma Donoghue’s novel published in 2011, and hoped that this new novel would repeat the success of her earlier work.

This time Ms Donoghue has taken on an equally challenging subject matter. The novel is set in deepest rural Ireland at the time just after the potato famine. Mrs Wright, known as Lib to her family, is a Nightingale nurse, hired for two weeks private nursing work; on arrival, she finds that, along with another nurse (who is a nun, Sister Michael), she is to keep constant watch (morning, noon and night) on a girl who has for four months been refusing to eat, but who is being described as the Wonder.

Lib is told by the local doctor, McBrearty: “It’s a most unusual case… Anna O’Donnell claims – or, rather, her parents claim – that she hasn’t taken food since her eleventh birthday… No sustenance of any kind… She can’t take a thing but clear water.” And yet, “Anna walks around like any other girl… she hardly seems to have altered since April.”

Lib is immediately convinced that Anna must be a fraud, and that she will be able to work out within a very short time exactly how the girl is getting sustenance. Her family are poor and Anna is their only surviving child, her brother having died the previous year. Now Anna is being treated as a Wonder, and visitors are arriving determined to treat her as a miraculous presence, asking for her blessing and leaving offerings when they depart. During the two-week watch, things change, and it becomes clear to Lib and to a young journalist, William Byrne, sent by the Irish Times to write about Anna, that things have changed and the child is now not far off death. Has this resulted from the watch constantly being placed on her? Have the nurses unwittingly cut off the secret means by which she was getting food? The truth is shocking and, yes, Lib and Sister Michael have sadly caused things to come to this crisis point.

Emma Donoghue never fails to create credible rounded people in her works. Their worlds are as enclosed and trapped in The Wonder as they are in Room. Her descriptions of every bit of their surroundings, from the peaty landscape (into which poor Lib falls when trying to get some air and take a walk, only to discover how treacherous it can be) to the spirit house where Lib, Sister Michael and William Byrne are staying, and to the shabby home of the O’Donnells: “The cabin was in need of a fresh coat of whitewash; pitched thatch brooded over three small squares of glass. At the far end, a cow byre stooped under the same rood.” This family are clearly struggling to make ends meet and could surely do with the money which is being left by visitors come to see the miracle child in the iron safe by the door “for the poor”.

Lib and William see something in Anna which is rare and beautiful, brave and intense, loving and strong (even when she’s physically at her weakest), and in many ways they also see many of those same qualities in each other. Their story is moving and uplifting, and told with such tenderness that Ms Donoghue had me completely within her spell. Fabulous.

Daisy Chapter and VerseReviewed by Daisy

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What She Never Told Me – Kate McQuaile

Rating: 5 stars

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Louise Redmond is back in Ireland, where she was born and grew up until her mother, Marjorie Redmond, persuaded her to go to England to study music. She’s no brothers or sisters and she’s never known her father: all her mother’s told her about him is that he was an Englishman named David Prescott, who left Ireland before Louise was born. Her much-loved stepfather, Dermot, has already died, and now the death of her mother after a very short illness leaves poor Louise with many unanswered questions, trying to sort out who she really is and what to do with her life.

And she’s doubly bereft: Sandy, her husband of ten years, has left her. As Louise tries to make sense of everything, she’s haunted by shadows of memories from when she was a tiny child, memories she finds unsettling and threatening. She seeks help from her mother’s older brother, whom she barely knows, and accidentally stumbles upon what may well be the key to her life. But there are lots of twists and turns on the way, before she eventually discovers the truth about her parents and her family, and is able at last to achieve a greater peace with herself and come out of her mother’s shadow and into the light.

I read this over the course of two long train journeys, and was completely gripped. Kate McQuaile has created a rich variety of characters, who weave their through the complexities of the plot. I loved the descriptions of Louise’s journeys through different parts of Ireland, from the rich suburbs of Dublin to rural Kerry to find the family she never knew she had. She has the love and support of her oldest friend, Ursula, and her stepsister, Angela, both of whom are unfailingly kind and generous, but it’s a difficult journey which Louise is on and many truths and lies have to be uncovered along the way, both from other people to her and also from her to other people.

Should people ever tell lies or hide the truth in order to be kinder? These are tricky matters and many of the characters have got it wrong at times; sometimes their motives have been far less than kind, too, and more to do with self preservation. In the end even Louise has some truths which she understands are best not told, not just to protect herself but to be kind to other people. But finally she has achieved a greater peace than she could have dared to dream of less than a year before.

A terrific first novel – I strongly recommend it.

Daisy Chapter and VerseReviewed by Daisy

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