Hannah Kent, Burial Rites (Picador 2013)
Before the meeting: This book is based on the real story of the last woman to be executed in Iceland, an event that happened in 1830. My knowledge of Iceland, which comes mainly from photographs of stark, beautiful, treeless landscapes and Grímur Hákonarson’s movie Rams, led me to expect that any novel set there would be grim. So a novel culminating an execution could only be more so.
Grim or not, I loved it. I’ve raved about it to people met in the park, and barely restrained myself from reading bits aloud to the Emerging Artist (now known as the Heart Lady, but that’s another story).
At the beginning Agnes, convicted of brutally murdering her employer, is being transferred from one place of imprisonment to another. She is filthy, malodorous and barely able to speak. (Interestingly, her condition at the beginning of the novel bears a striking resemblance to that of the women towards the end of Charlottte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things, which I imagine was being written at the same time as this.) While awaiting execution, she is sent as a cost-saving measure to live with the family of a local official who lives near the planned place of execution.
The main narrative follows Agnes’ developing relationships with members of the host family: father, mother and two young adult daughters. At first the family are convincingly and reasonably horrified that they will have to share their house with this monster, though right from their first encounter the mother of the household is even more horrified at the way Agnes has been treated. A young trainee clergyman is assigned to attend to Agnes’ spiritual needs. Against the advice and instructions of his superiors, he refrains from preaching sternly at her and instead encourages her to talk to him. Because of the size of their dwelling and the bitter Icelandic winter, the family hear much of what passes between them, and we learn her story along with them. As you’d expect from the set-up, in the process they come to see her not as a monster but as a fellow human – more a servant than a prisoner.
All of that is beautifully done, though the story Agnes tells, a story of love betrayed, is less compelling than the circumstances of its telling. And then there is the narration told direct to the reader from Agnes’ point of view. This is where we learn Agnes’ inner story – the erotic experiences that she can’t speak of, and her emotional life. In these sections Hannah Kent’s writing, never less than elegant elsewhere, is rich and poetic without being hi-falultin, so that I for one was completely drawn in. I don’t remember ever being so caught up by a deft use of similes. Here’s a passage from fairly early on, when Agnes has begun to work again, trusted to use a scythe:
I let my body fall into a rhythm. I sway back and forth and let gravity bring the scythe down and through the grass, until I rock steadily. Until I feel that I am not moving myself, and that the sun is driving me. Until I am a puppet of the wind, and of the scythe, and of the long, slow strokes that propel my body forward. Until I couldn’t stop if I wanted to.
It’s a good feeling, not quite being in control. Of being gently swung back and forth, until I forget what it is to be still. Like being with Natan in the first months when my heartbeat shuddered through me and I could have died, I was so happy to be desired.
The book’s power has something to do with the strong sense of a particular time and place. The world-building, to borrow a term from SF/F discourse, is extraordinarily convincing. In her acknowledgements, Hannah Kent says she set out to write a ‘dark love letter to Iceland’. She has succeeded in spades.
The meeting: As it was the last meeting of the year, we ate at the new (to most of us) Tramsheds in Glebe, and gave each other gift-wrapped books from our shelves. As always in restaurants, the background noise was a dampener in general conversation. But we all enjoyed the book. Someone compared it unfavourably to Halldór Laxness’s Independent People, saying that at times Burial Rites broke free of its early 19th Century Icelandic setting and resorted to tropes from 20th century romance fiction. Specifically, if I understood him correctly, Agnes’s internalised sense of the master–servant relationship vanished too easily and was replaced by an anachronistic expectation of romantic love and fidelity. In general we could see what he meant. Likewise, we all agreed when someone said that it was obvious what was going to happen from the very beginning: the family would soften towards Agnes, and her story as it emerged would reveal either innocence or major extenuating circumstances. Neither of these criticisms dampened the general enthusiasm for the book.
There were some mostly audible, goosebump-inducing readings of passages our Post-it warrior had marked.
Then we cheerfully turned away from the spartan, claustrophobic and bitterly cold world of the novel and enjoyed a meat-heavy meal in a flash new restaurant whose menu names the farms that provide the animals they serve up to their customers.
The verse, my last for this November:
November Verse 14: The Book Group Chooses What to Read Next Ben stands and says he must be going: 'Shall we decide the next book now?' 'No time for all the to and fro-ing before you leave,' says Ian. That's how just seven of us made the vital choice of our next Book Group title. Not Watson's Bush, that's far too long, not more Houellebecq, that's just wrong. No to Solnits, Coetzee, Gorton. Steve says, 'How about Don Juan? I mean Quixote. That's a yarn I'd like to read.' That one caught on. And after complex back and forth we lit on Shakespeare's Henry Fourth.
Burial Rites is the fourteenth book I’ve read for the 2016 Australian Women Writers Challenge.
I loved Burial rites too. Hard to believe it was her first novel and that she is still so young. She has another book available soon
A book we agree on, MA! Her second book is out already, I think: The Good People, set in Ireland.
Glad you enjoyed it … and you describe your enjoyment so convincingly! But I thought it was the most overrated book ever. The research hung heavy over the text, and your friend’s comment about its ill-judged lapses into romantic fiction is so true. In comparison to Independent People … they’re not in the same league! Going to Iceland made me think even less of it. I don’t feel she captures the country or the people at all. Sorry!
Kathy: I understand your gladness. I’m usually happy when someone says they enjoyed a book I hated – unless it’s evil or The Da Vinci Code. Now I really do have to read Independent People.
Oh yes, definitely not evil! And you must read Independent People – every scene has lodged in my brain, and changed the way I see the world.
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Haha, love your poem – and sorry I’ve taken a while to get to this post. Am SO behind in everything. Glad you and your group enjoyed Burial rites. I agree with all you say, except for the anachronistic bit. That seems to be a common criticism of historical fiction – particularly ones which deal with “issues”. I’d argue that we are sometimes to ready to think that the way we see things or they way we feel are unique to our times. I’m not sure they always are. Doesn’t you (your bookgroup member) think servants sometimes had hopes, particularly if the master was kind to them. Servants are human and surely some at least might have dreamt of better lives for themselves?
You must read Independent people. I wouldn’t compare them. Sure both are set in Iceland, but Independent people is a classic. It was written by an Icelander about his own people – that makes it different for a start. And too, I don’t believe it is “historical fiction” but set in the early twentieth century which is when it is written. I do think if we compare books they need to be the same sorts of beasts?
Oh, and I didn’t feel the research hung heavily on this book (though I have heard these criticisms of her new one. I can imagine that it might have happened with the new one, whereas I think Agnes story did come from her heart initially which she then researched to find out more?)
Argumentative today, aren’t I?
Argumentative, but always interesting. I read a review somewhere that complained about the weight of the research, but I just can’t see it – the final book in Frank Moorhouse’s Edith trilogy is my touchstone for that sort of thing, and this had none of that quality. About the anachronism, though it didn’t bother me, I think the criticism was that Agnes had these thoughts and aspirations too cleanly, i.e. without all the internalised obstacles. Interesting that Independent People is from a different era – I had got the impression that it was a historical novel. I’m in the queue for it at the library.
It feels historical Jonathan, because I think the life hadn’t changed much but I understand that it was set in times pretty much contemporary to him. I’ll be interested to see what you think.
Independent people read to me as almost autobiographical – the young boy whose perspective is used a lot could be the author. You’re in for a treat Jonathan! I have another one of his – Under the glacier. I’ll let you know if it’s as good and can lend it to you.
I have another one of his too, The fish can sing, and have given Atom Station as a gift. I believe The fish can sing is much lighter, but I just have to find time to read it!
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