You could almost look at at it as a case of two for the price of one. Hannah Kent's 2013 debut novel Burial Rites - the story of an Icelandic woman beheaded for her role in a dual murder - might have been one of the most talked about first novels in recent memory. But it also sowed the seed of her second novel, The Good People.
"In the course of researching [Burial Rites] I had to translate a lot of Icelandic sources and this was incredibly tedious and laborious," Kent recalls. "One afternoon I was basically brain-dead and thought - I was basically procrastinating - and I thought maybe a British newspaper would have reported the execution."
She spent an afternoon looking through old British newspapers but didn't come across any mention of Agnes Magnusdottir - the strong willed but tragic protagonist of Burial Rites. But she did stumble across a small article about an Irish woman "of advanced age", named Ann Roche, who had been accused of a horrific crime. Ann's defense case, which was briefly mentioned in the newspaper article, was so extraordinary that it "lit up" Kent's curiosity - she claimed she had been trying to banish a fairy or changeling from the world.
Intrigued, Kent wrote the whole story down in her notepad and then got on with other things. "Years later when I was talking to publishers and they were acquiring Burial Rites, I was asked asked if I had a second novel in mind - and I immediately thought of this story," she says.
The Good People is a sensitively drawn tale of love, grief, and terrible loss, set in a tiny Irish village in the early 19th century. Ann Roche, known in the book as Nance, is a folk healer. She's summoned by a local woman, Nora Leahy, who is grieving the sudden, mysterious deaths of her only daughter and her beloved husband and is left alone, caring for her sickly young grandson Micheal.
Kent wanted to explore how grief, poverty and a lack of education combined in the lives of Nora and Nance. "They didn't get involved in these activities simply through some inherent evil," she points out. But she wanted to examine the ways that culture, society and politics intersected to shape the women's lives into a particular, startling trajectory that ended in crime. "And you can't escape gender and class in that situation."
It's a theme that her readers will find familiar from Burial Rites - where poverty, social class and gender roles bear down on Agnes Magnusdottir, forcing her into circumstances that ultimately lead to murder and her own execution. The Adelaide-born Kent was just 27 when she was offered a $1 million two-book deal for Burial Rites and there was no escaping the fact that the second novel weighed on her mind. But she says "it's a wonderful problem to have. I mean how wonderful to have readers in the first place. I think it's important to remember that if you focus on gratitude it enables you to get back to [the writing]."
The story of Agnes Magnusdottir's life and her execution is known in Iceland and the records were well kept, offering Kent plenty of research material, and providing the historical bones on which to flesh out her novel. But with The Good People, she had almost nothing to use from the historical record, save for the first article that piqued her curiosity, and a second story she found which illuminated the relationships between the women. She found herself free to create the detail of the women's lives and fill in their stories.
"It was the first time really that I had such license and I found it a challenging in its own unique way - I wouldn't say it was necessarily easier or more difficult, it was a very different process, and one which to me was almost like writing a debut novel all over again," she says.
Like Burial Rites, this book is filled with descriptions of ritual and rhythm. Nance collects herbs and roots from the fields to spin her spells and heal the sick. A young villager is traumatised to find his wife wandering in her sleep to a fairy gathering place. Kent spent time in Ireland researching the book and travelling alone was important to her, she says. She would meet fellow guests at B&Bs, or strike up conversations with fellow researchers in a library. "Certainly in Ireland, someone told me they felt sorry for me - that I was just a girl by myself so they would always introduce me to people which was fantastic."
A farmer who ran a B&B at his property allowed her to tramp through the fields, taking her to visit a piper's grave surrounded by whitethorn trees, a fairy ringfort among the greenery, the river Flesk bubbling past in the rushes. "When I came to write the book it was too tempting to leave it out," she says. "It was so clear in my mind's eye - I had such a clear physical sensory experience of this river - and that's what I wrote out of."
And for the record, Kent had a black cat, so the supernatural fascinates her only as a lens for human behaviour. "Everyone either has a ghost story or knows someone who who knows a ghost story or knows someone who has a slightly supernatural experience, and I'm fascinated by these stories," she says. "I'm interested because of what they reveal about us as humans - about our lived experience, our fears and insecurities."
The Good People by Hannah Kent is published by Pan Macmillan. Hannah Kent will be in conversation with Jenn Webb at the Canberra Times/ ANU Meet the Author event on Monday, October 3 at 6.30pm. See anu.edu.au/events
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