Tuesday, September 17, 2013

REVIEW: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Synopsis

A brilliant literary debut, inspired by a true story: the final days of a young woman accused of murder in Iceland in 1829.

Set against Iceland's stark landscape, Hannah Kent brings to vivid life the story of Agnes, who, charged with the brutal murder of her former master, is sent to an isolated farm to await execution.

Horrified at the prospect of housing a convicted murderer, the family at first avoids Agnes. Only Tóti, a priest Agnes has mysteriously chosen to be her spiritual guardian, seeks to understand her. But as Agnes's death looms, the farmer's wife and their daughters learn there is another side to the sensational story they've heard.

Riveting and rich with lyricism, BURIAL RITES evokes a dramatic existence in a distant time and place, and asks the question, how can one woman hope to endure when her life depends upon the stories told by others?


Hardcover, 336 pages
Published September 10th 2013 by Little, Brown and Company
ISBN 0316243914 (ISBN13: 9780316243919)



About the Author

Photograph by Nicholas Purcell, obtained from Hannah Kent website
Hannah Kent was born in Adelaide in 1985. As a teenager she travelled to Iceland on a Rotary Exchange, where she first heard the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir.

Hannah is the co-founder and publishing director of Australian literary journal Kill Your Darlings, and is completing her PhD at Flinders University. In 2011 she won the inaugural Writing Australia Unpublished Manuscript Award.

Burial Rites is her first novel.


Check out the author's website
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My Thoughts
They said I must die. They said that I stole the breath from men, and now they must steal mine.
And so we are introduced to Agnes Magnusdottir, as she navigates the end of her life.

Town/Environment:
 
This book takes place in the small village of Kornsa in northern Iceland. People here live on farms in small turf-roofed homes.
Grassodenhaus auf Island Foto von Stefan Schafft  
The year is 1828 and Agnes Magnusdottir, along with two others, has been condemned to die by beheading for the murders of two men. But the government has spent too much money on the axe to be used for the beheadings, and they can't afford the upkeep of the prisoners until their execution. So Agnes is sent from the prison to the home of Jon Jonsson of Kornsa, the District Officer of Vatnsdalur, and his wife Margret. They are ordered, as part of his duty as District Officer, to take charge of Agnes until the date of her execution. The family is not happy about these orders, but feel they have no choice but to perform their duty.

This novel is a fictional story based on actual events. As the author explains in her Author's Notes: "Agnes Magnusdottir was the last person to be executed in Iceland, convicted for her role in the murders of Natan Ketilsson and Petur Jonsson on the night between the 13th and 14th of March 1828, at Illugastadir, on the Vatnsnes Peninsula, North Iceland." Many of the events int he book are drawn from local history and lore.

Little by little, the life of Agnes is laid bare to the reader, and as heartbreaking as it is, you realize that it is nothing uncommon. This is the life of orphans and paupers.

However this novel is uncommon. It's a modest story, slowly pulling you in, absorbing you bit by bit. It is heart-wrenching at moments, and you yearn for Agnes to find some relief from her fear, and to find love and affection.

Agnes is returned to Kornsa, where she had a family for awhile in her childhood, and gains a family again before her death. She was fostered as a young girl by Inga and Bjorn until Inga died. 
Yesterday, when I was shut up in the storeroom of Stora-Borg, Kornsa would have seemed a heaven….But I see now that it will be a humiliation. People will know me in the valley. They will remember me as I was-- as a baby, as a child, as a woman running from farm to farm-- and then they will think of the murders and that child, that woman will be forgotten. (p. 36)
Agnes requests as her spiritual attendant Assistant Reverend Thorvardur Jonsson, otherwise known as Toti. He is unclear why Agnes has requested him, and is uncomfortable with the assignment. He is still in training, and nervous about attending to a murderess. But he, like the Kornsa family, performs his duty as ordered.

Toti and Agnes form a bond as he permits her to pour out her soul and rehash her past.
 ...although I have struggled, I am run through and through with disaster; I am knifed to the hilt with fate. (p. 69)
I can turn to that day as though it were a page in a book. It’s written so deeply upon my mind I can almost taste the ink. (p. 106)
Jon and Margret's daughter Steina is fascinated with Agnes, and seeks a bond with her, but Agnes holds Steina apart from herself.
She is not like me. She knows only the tree of life. She has not seen its twisted roots pawing stones and coffins. (p. 132)
One of my few complaints is that I would have liked to have seen more development in the relationships between Agnes and the family members. I would have liked to have felt warmth between them growing, and her opening up to them. Her relationship with them remained rather stilted.
 
And one thing I hate is when a book has lots of foreign words, names and concepts. I know that it is often needed for authenticity, but it can make it an uncomfortable read for me. The use of these words are foreign to me, and they pull me out of the story as I struggle with them, and detract from my enjoyment. Even the odd names throws me off a bit as I try to wrap my mind around the proper way to pronounce the name. But that is a minor inconvenience here.

Overall the writing was beautifully lyrical.
...like a dead woman they will bury me in the earth, pocket me like a stone. (p. 235)
Her poetry made lamps out of people...Rosa’s poetry kindled the shavings of my soul, and lit me up from within. (p. 184)
He smelt of snowmelt and fresh cream. (p. 94)
My final word: This was one of those gentle reads, at times so entrancing it is almost hypnotic, like being rocked to sleep. Affective and sensitive, it moved me. I would consider this novel to be rare and extraordinary, and it will carry you along to the bitter end, if you allow it, with tears streaming down your face as you take those final steps. But you aren't alone. Agnes is with you.
“Do you know what it means, to have a hollow palm? It means there is something secretive about us. This empty space can be filled with bad luck if we’re not careful. If we expose the hollow to the world and all its darkness, all its misfortune.”

“But how can one help the shape of one’s hand?” I was laughing.

“By covering it with another’s, Agnes.” (p. 145-146)
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My Rating: A


Disclaimer:

I received a complimentary copy of this e-book from the publisher through Netgalley, in exchange for my honest opinion. I was not financially compensated in any way, and the opinions expressed are my own and based on my observations while reading this novel. The book that I received was an uncorrected proof, and any quotes could differ from the print version.


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