When I interviewed Geraldine Brooks a few years ago, I asked her what she considered good writing.
She answered, ‘the kind you feel on your skin.’
I knew exactly what she meant.
I know when I encounter true art in any form when I feel a frisson, as if of cold or fear or excitement, and goosebumps rise on my skin. The medical term for goosebumps is ‘horripilation’. It comes from the Latin word horrore, ‘to tremble’ which is also the root of such words as ‘horror’, ‘horrible’, and ‘abhorrent’.
Yet it is not something repulsive that makes my skin shiver. It is something beautiful, something that pierces me with joy, that makes my breath catch and my eyes sting and the muscles of my throat constrict.
It is always involuntary. I cannot predict what will cause it, I cannot make it happen. Often it catches me by surprise.
Yet it is what I look for, what I long for.
A few years ago, I was at the Australian Society of Authors Christmas party, chatting to Deb Abela, a wonderful children’s author and a dear friend of mine. She asked me if I had read the new book everyone was raving about, by the debut author Hannah Kent.
I said I hadn’t. ‘Should I?’ I asked.
Deb nodded. ‘You’ll love it.’ Then she told me that, even though it had been a scorching hot day when she read the book, she had felt a shiver run all over her, and the hairs on her arms had bristled up.
After, I went straight to a bookshop and bought Burial Rites. Deb was right. I loved it.
Nothing in the world pleases me more than discovering a new author whose work I love. Usually, I would search out any of their other books and eventually, I’d try and read everything they had ever written. Since Burial Rites was Hannah’s first book, I had to wait for her to write another.
Needless to say, I was very glad when, by chance, I was asked if I’d like to do a literary event with her at a winery an hour outside Melbourne, to discuss her new novel The Good People. Because, of course, it meant that I had to read the book!
A few days later, a package arrived with a proof copy, and I settled down at once to read it. I was hoping to feel again that shiver of the skin, that clench in the pit of my stomach that feels so much like longing or desire. Within the first three pages, it happened.
‘Alarm ran through her and she looked down at the child, his hair copper in the firelight. She was grateful that he slept. The boy’s difference did not show so much when he was asleep. The keel of his limbs slackened, and there was no telling the dumb tongue in his head.’
The Good People is set in 1825 Ireland, in a small, remote village where everyone knows each other. The story begins when Nóra’s husband literally drops dead, without warning. The neighbours all come to her cottage for the wake, and Nóra asks a friend to take her grandson Micheál for the day so no-one would see him. The little boy is ‘an ill-shriven thing’, who cannot yet walk or talk, even though he is four.
The local wise woman also comes to keen for the dead man. Her name is Nance Roche, and she is ‘small, shrunken, with a face as wrinkled as a forgotten russet.’ She is said to have the fios sigheog, or the fairy knowledge, and sometimes uses it to heal the villagers. Yet Nance is feared too, for she knows how to curse as well as to heal.
Nóra hires a young woman, Mary, to help her care for Micheál who cannot feed or clean himself. She comes to believe that the child is a changeling, a fairy child who has been exchanged for her real grandson, and asks old Nance for help to ‘put the fairy out of him.’ Slowly, the three women travel ever closer to inexorable tragedy.
I have always been fascinated by myth, fairy-tale and witchcraft. Celtic fairy lore is of particular interest to me, because of my Celtic ancestry. As a child, I used to imagine I was a changeling, born in the fairy realm but raised in the human world, and longed for the day when my magical heritage would be revealed to me.
As an adult, I have read many accounts of true-life witch trials, including the terrible case of Bridget Cleary, who was burnt to death by her husband in County Tipperary in 1895 because he thought she was a changeling. It goes without saying that I love books steeped in folklore and mythology.
I also love novels which take me deep into another time and place, and make me feel as if I have truly been there. And I want the stories I read to be silver-tongued, written in language that is pure and poetic and charged to the utmost with meaning. The Good People has all three of these qualities; it felt as if it was written just for me.
On the day of our literary lunch at Montalto, I asked Hannah if she would read a passage from her book. I had marked a page in case she did not know which would be best. However, she had already chosen a section to read … the same passage that I had earmarked.
No one would come for her today, Nance knew … People did not often come to her at a time like this. She reminded them too much of their own mortality.
The keener. The handy woman. Nance opened her mouth and people thought of the way things went wrong, the way one thing became another. They looked at her white hair and saw twilight. She was both the woman who brought babies to safe harbour in the world, and the siren that cut boats free of their anchors and sent them into the dark.
Nance knew that the only reason they had allowed her this damp cabin between mountain and wood and river for twenty-odd years was because she stood in for that which was not and could not be understood. She was the gatekeeper at the edge of the world. The final human hymn before all fell to wind and shadow and the strange creaking of stars. She was a pagan chorus. An older song.
As I listened to Hannah read these words to a room crowded with rapt listeners, I felt my flesh creep and the hairs on my head prickle. I looked down at the bare skin of my arms. Every hair was erect, every muscle beneath contracted, even though I had read those words before.
Robert Graves wrote in The White Goddess: ‘the reason why the hairs stand on end, the eyes water, the throat is constricted, the skin crawls and a shiver runs down the spine when one writes or reads a true poem is that a true poem is necessarily an invocation of the White Goddess, or Muse, the Mother of All Living, the ancient power of fright or lust — the female spider or the queen bee whose embrace is death.’
Hannah Kent is a true poet, and The Good People a true poem.
Kate Forsyth is the internationally bestselling author of more than thirty books, including The Witches of Eileanan and Rhiannon’s Ride fantasy series for adults.