Having really enjoyed Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites, I was excited to read her second novel. I was not disappointed.
The setting is an isolated village in southwest Ireland in the mid-1820s. Nóra Leahy’s husband dies suddenly leaving her the sole caregiver of their 4-year-old disabled grandson Micheál. The boy neither speaks nor walks; he is described as not having “the full of his mind” and being “forever awake and screaming” and looking like “a little bag of bones fit for a pauper’s coffin.” Nóra hires Mary Clifford, a young girl from a large, impoverished family, to help her with Micheál’s care. Desperate to get help for him, Nóra also goes to see Nance Roche, a local healer who has experience with herbal remedies and who also knows how to mitigate the mischief of the Good People, the fairies. Nance diagnoses Micheál as a changeling, a fairy child, so she and Nóra set out to banish the changeling and recover the human child.
The three women (Nóra, Nance and Mary) are clearly delineated. The reader is given access to the thoughts and feelings so their torment and confusion are obvious and their motivations are clearly understood. Though they are guilty of administering extremely harsh “remedies,” they are not totally evil. Grieving, lonely, and exhausted, Nóra agrees to increasingly abusive treatments in the honest belief that her grandson who could once talk and walk has been kidnapped by the fairies. Good-hearted Mary bonds with the child and becomes protective of him but she has no influence over Nóra who could dismiss her from a job which Mary needs to help her destitute family. Nance who has always lived on the margins has become more ostracized because of the local priest’s sermonizing against paganism; if she is able to recover Micheál, she believes she will be able to dispel people’s doubts and suspicions and restore people’s faith in her: “If I can restore Micheál to Nóra then they will see that there is no word of a lie in my dealings with them . . . they will all return to me.” The title of the novel may refer to the fairies but it can also be interpreted to refer to the women who are good people driven by circumstances to take extreme measures.
Some sympathy is felt for each of these women. They are trapped in lives shaped by superstition. Poverty and ignorance are major factors in their lives, and geography isolates them from the wider world. There is also an underlying misogyny; women are often blamed for misfortune. Calamity is not seen as random bad luck but an indication that proper rituals were not followed. A woman who gives birth to a stillborn child is blamed for not seeing the blacksmith “to blow the bellows” and for being present at a funeral wake; Nóra is not the only one to wonder what she did or didn’t do to deserve being made a widow. Women who challenge expectations are viewed with suspicion; they “are forced to the edges by their difference.” Nance lists the ways in which she is different: “her ability in her loneliness, in the absence of a husband, her crooked hands, her habit of smoking, of drinking like a man.” A neighbour points out that in the view of some people, Nance is guilty of a “great crime”: “’She lives by the woods on her own. That’s enough to set tongues going.’”
The novel shows a conflict between different belief systems, specifically Christianity and paganism. Folkloric beliefs are not shown in a positive light but organized religion is also shown as flawed. Father Healy, the local priest, lacks compassion. He seems to have no understanding of the daily struggles and needs of ordinary people. He is described as “slack-jawed and slumped with the spine of a scholar” and when Nóra asks him for help with her grandson, he doesn’t even agree to pray for him and tells her callously, “’I think perhaps that it is your duty to care for this child and do the best you can.’” (Even a doctor offers no aid: “’The boy is a cretin. There is nothing I can do.’”)
I found the book emotionally draining. I felt sympathy for each of the women though at times I was also very angry at them. The actions of the priest and the gossips in the village are upsetting. It was disturbing to read how certain beliefs focus on assigning shame and blame. I was also left feeling immensely grateful for not living in such abject poverty and for not being as powerless as these women. I think the novel will haunt me for a while.
Though the book is not an easy read, I highly recommend it. It will not leave a reader untouched.