Dream Believe Create is an online magazine for women entrepreneurs, creatives and change-makers. It’s for women who want to start sustainable, mission-driven businesses or creative practices without sacrificing their principles and avoiding the profit-at-any-cost / business-as-usual model that we’re all so tired of.

In Review: Books for Change-Makers

In Review: Books for Change-Makers

{3 minute read}

This issue, I’ve departed from the world of business and startups to review a book of fiction - ‘The Good People’ by Hannah Kent.

It’s Halloween, so a story about fairies and changelings seems appropriate; and if you’re a lover of historical or literary fiction then this is definitely one for you to check out. It’s an absorbing read.

More than that, ‘The Good People’ is a book that I found profoundly moving, and that made me think about choice, and more specifically, what happens when you don’t have choice.

Our decisions are informed and contained by our circumstances, and sometimes those circumstances leave us with few options. How do we justify the decisions we make under such constraint, to ourselves and others? How should our resultant actions be judged?

Although set in the past, this story of women living in poverty, in a closed society, in a colonised country, burdened by duty and bound by love, still reflects, either in whole or part,the circumstances of many women’s lives today.

It also reminded me that women’s wisdom, so often denigrated historically, continues to be sidelined. Horrors have been visited on the witches, the healers and the wise women of the past in an effort to silence them, to invalidate their work and to alienate them from society. The impact of those horrors has resonated through the centuries, and we are still in recovery now. The world is.

These are just some of the things that ‘The Good People’ prompted me to think about. You can read more in the review below:

‘The Good People’ opens in 1825 in a remote settlement in the west of Ireland. It is a bleak place, and people live grim, hard lives. We meet Nora Leah, a woman of the village who has recently lost her beloved daughter, and her husband has now also died suddenly. Grief-stricken, and stunned by her losses, Nora is left alone to care for her grandson, a child who has ceased to thrive and whose demands she finds increasingly difficult to meet.

Sleep deprived, fearful and reeling from the ills that have befallen her, Nora’s life begins to spiral from her control. Attempting to alleviate her situation, she hires a young maid, Mary, and the two care for the boy as best they can. Nora is careful to hide their plight from her neighbours, fearing condemnation and judgement. Despite, or perhaps because of this secrecy, rumours begin to spread, and blame for a litany of mishaps and misfortune is superstitiously attributed to the strange boy and to Nora’s household. As Nora’s desperation grows, neither the doctor nor her priest can provide solutions. Eventually, with all other avenues exhausted, she seeks assistance from the local wise woman, Nance Roche.

Nance lives at the edge of the community, both geographically and psychologically, and is known to understand the ways of the fairies. These fairies are the good people of the book’s title. Ostensibly, this is the name used to avoid offending them, but perhaps it also alludes to a more elusive quality, a quality that is unspoken and unacknowledged. Is it possible that the goodness ascribed to the fairies is a recognition of their willingness to absorb the burden of human guilt? That their wrongdoings provide a rationale, and an acceptable defense, for otherwise unconscionable acts?

In this isolated community, people believe in fairies, and they do not. They believe in the supernatural, and they do not.

These complex layers of belief are beautifully and sensitively revealed as the book progresses. Characters place protective keep-safes in their pockets before walking home in the dark. They bury their unchristened, stillborn children in ground that is sacred, but not holy. They gather in wonderment to view piseogs - objects of malevolent intent - believing them to be the physical expression of fairy curses, while simultaneously pondering which of their neighbours is responsible for their creation.

This community has little interaction with the outside world. Theirs is a hand-to-mouth existence, subsisting on potatoes and milk and little more. They pay rents they can scarcely afford, and yet other than the ever-present threat of eviction, their landlords make no intrusion into their lives.

Nonetheless, there are outside forces at work which affect the villagers’ fortunes. The author introduces these external pressures with subtle references to the broader political scene. Without intruding into the intimacy of the narrative, these references provide context for the changes that are unsettling the small community. In an altering world, where Irish freedom from colonial rule is now being fought for in parliament and the courts, it’s newly appointed priest cannot condone a belief in the existence of the good people. Thus, the stage is set for a clash between an ancient belief system and the forces of modernity and rationality.

This is beautiful, evocative writing that creates an utterly believable and compelling world. It is a world peopled by characters we come to care deeply about as the narrative gathers pace and the inevitable looms closer.

No matter how much we want Nora, Mary and Nance to step away from their destiny, we know they cannot. It is inescapable. Even so, the last pages of the novel took my breath away. Poignant and powerful, I was left contemplating their meaning for a long time after closing the covers of this remarkable book.

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