The setting sun streams in through the Gothic sized windows that overlook a vineyard. This massive space with its high vaulted ceilings, exposed beams and rustic iron chandeliers, looks and feels a bit like a medieval church. Our religion this evening is reading and the faithful are gathered to hear the sermon of Hannah Kent, author of ‘Burial Rites’, a haunting historic tale set in Iceland. What better setting to hear about her new book; ‘The Good People’, this time taking us to nineteenth century Ireland, a country steeped in superstitions that explain everything from minor ailments to disappearance.
Along with around 200 other members of the congregation, on arrival I am handed a glass of wine and steered to my name tag at one of the long, linen covered tables that begin at the entrance and disappear into the distance towards the microphone. We are at the Centennial Vineyards in the picturesque Southern highlands of N.S.W, and this is one of many literary events organised throughout the year by the Bookshop, Bowral.
To my right are 3 women in their thirties, one of whom is a local hairdresser who loves reading. Evidently, the other two are her clients. They bonded over books while she was cutting their hair and decided to form a book club. I am reminded of while the act of reading is a solitary pursuit, talking about what we have read in common creates a special kind of intimacy.
The noise drops as tonight’s Guru takes the stage. How has this beautiful, articulate thirty-one year old already become a best-selling author? She tells us that it all began when, as a child, she acquired a box of forty Enid Blyton books at a garage sale. From then she entered a world of fantasy that she has never really left. Her parents encouraged story-telling and creativity and fortunately this gave her the confidence to stave off the disparaging remarks of the faithless who doubted her ability to support herself through writing. Presumably a PHD in creative writing from Flinders University also helped.
So what took her to the fairy glens of Ireland where her second book is set. Hannah randomly stumbled upon an English newspaper article published in 1826 about a woman accused of murder. However what particularly caught her attention was the basis of the woman’s defence. She could not be guilty of murder because the victim was a ‘changeling’. For those of us unclear on the exact meaning of this term, Hannah explains that “a changeling is a fairy among us”. So this random newspaper report combined with “an interest in the nature of darkness” began a frenzy of research into rituals, herbs and fairy stories from Ireland. She was on a mission “to shed the modern mind,” which ended up being so effective that Hannah can no longer look at a herb without remembering what it cures. She cites the case of Foxglove which can kill or heal, putting it in the realm of “the inexplicable, not good or bad. Not good enough for heaven, not bad enough for hell”. In Ireland people lived in constant fear that any of them at any time could be taken and replaced by a changeling. Placating the fairies filled their lives and has filled a whole room of reference cards in an Irish Library. She reminds us of the expression “off with the fairies” to which the whole room murmurs in recognition. And to the skeptics who scoff at fairies, she says, “Even the greatest cynic gets goose bumps, when they find themselves alone in a dark forest.”
In terms of why, in general Hannah Kent writes, she says that she is compelled to explore the human experience, the way we are shaped by the external and how what we see in the lives of others creates empathy. As reader and a writer, I say amen to that!