Foreboding builds from the get-go of “The Good People,” Hannah Kent’s haunting historical novel about a rural Irish community gripped by sudden death and suspicion.

“Lights. Coming from where the fairies do be, down by the Piper’s Grave. … You mark my words, there’ll be another death in this family before long.”

It’s 1825, and the people in the hills near Killarney strike an uneasy balance between the sacred and the superstitious: rosary beads in one pocket, and cold embers to ward off evil spirits in the other. When Martin Leahy drops dead at the crossroads where suicides are buried, neighbors are set on edge. The fact that his daughter died not long before and left a strange grandchild behind fans the fear of otherworldly interference.

“First the daughter passes, and now the husband. I tell you, death likes three in company. And if the Good People have a hand in it … well,” says one of the local folk who serve as a Gaelic Greek chorus.

The Good People are not your Tinker Bell fairies, but troublemaking creatures “not good enough for Heaven and not bad enough for Hell.” They are blamed for any unexplained misfortune, and in this poor community there is plenty of misfortune.

The tale twines around Martin’s widow, Nóra, and Nance Roche, the “handy woman” who delivers the babies, keens the dead and concocts mystical remedies for troubles the priest and the doctor can’t fix. “Nance of the Fairies, they call her,” one neighbor says. “There are plenty that will have nothing to do with her on account of it but more who go to her because they believe it so.”

Nóra may not believe it so, but what else explains the transformation of her grandson, a once normal child now crippled and wailing day and night? Could he be a changeling, a stand-in the fairies leave in the place of the human they’ve stolen away?

Anxiety rises as word spreads among the women at the well and the men at the forge: The cows aren’t milking and the fields aren’t producing. Hard eyes flick to the cabin where Nóra keeps the boy tucked away. Might their troubles have something to do with the boy? Might his troubles have something to do with the Good People?

A fearful Nóra turns to Nance, who is in crisis herself. With the new priest condemning her from the pulpit and a recent stillbirth spreading doubt, she senses that “in some irreparable way the world was changing, that it spun away from her, and that in the whirl of change she was being flung to some forsaken corner.”

United in desperation, the two women embark on a fateful intercession with the fairy world to return the boy to normal and set the world to right.

Kent’s suspenseful storytelling plunges readers into early 19th-century Ireland. She brings vivid life to the hardscrabble scenes: dingy cabins and backbreaking work and the grim hiring fairs where poor children sell their labor to less poor people such as Nóra. When Nóra and Nance head off to confront the fairies, you can feel the mud sliding beneath their bare feet.

Although “The Good People” is fiction, it faithfully represents the hold of ancient Celtic myths on generations of Irish. It also lays bare some hard truths about human nature and leaves you thinking about belief, suspicion and what happens to a community when fear takes hold.

 

Maureen McCarthy is a team leader at the Star Tribune.

The Good People
By: Hannah Kent.
Publisher: Little, Brown, 388 pages, $27.