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Saturday, December 7, 2013

What I'm Reading: Burial Rights

Earlier this Fall, I read a debut novel, Burial Rites by Hannah Kent.  Kent is Australian, but this novel is set in 1820s Iceland.  Kent was an exchange student in Iceland when she heard the story of Agnes, the last woman executed  in Iceland.

The story is very atmospheric and tense.  Agnes is sent to live with a local government official in his small home in a rural part of the country.  She asks for a young reverand to be her counselor to prepare her to meet death.

Most of the action unfolds in the claustrophobic small home of the official.  The contradiction of the domestic details with the fact that Agnes may have murdered a man and must pay with her life is jarring.

Agnes’s life story is a sad one and it is revealed very methodically.  This mimics the bleak, unforgiving, never changing landscape.  The point of view shifts about mostly between the reverend, the members of the official’s family and Agnes, the result is that we get a full picture of what is going on.

Agnes is also a very complex and complicated woman.  As readers, we are drawn into her story, both the story of her past, and the story of how she is choosing to end her days on earth.

The place-- rural, isolated Iceland-- is also a character here.  In fact, that unrelenting place drives the story’s pace.  Things thaw slowly and storms brew quickly.  This also describes how the plot moves-- methodically at times, building in tension, and then finally bursting before it settles back down again.

You feel the frozen, historical Iceland in the story; you feel the damp and cold; you smell the earth.

One final note on the writing.  As debuts go, this one is technically well written, but it is a first novel so in parts it felt a little overwritten.  As it moved toward the inevitable conclusion I also felt like the central focus began to wobble.  But, it says a lot for Kent that we all know at the outset how the story is going to end, yet she keeps us turning the pages to see what is going to happen.

Burial Rights is a moving story, that is dark but not oppressive.  It is more of a contemplation than a story.  It is all atmosphere and place, with the characters and plot taking a back seat.

I was very impressed and will have many readers to pass this novel on to.  I also highly suggest it as a book discussion option, especially for groups who enjoy historical fiction and want to read something “different.”

Three Words That Describe This Book:  strong sense of place, atmospheric, methodically paced

Readalikes:  The most obvious readalike here is Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood.  This is also a historical tale of a woman waiting to be executed, but the setting in Alias Grace is rural Canada.  Atwood’s novel is a bit more technically precise, but it is by an award winning author in the middle of her career. Kent’s novel is very good for a debut, but it is still a debut.

In terms of the sense of place, the cold, the isolation, and the problems that come with living in such a remote and frozen landscape during a historical time period [1920s], I would suggest The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey.

For a book the recreates the overall feel of this novel without any obvious matching terms, I highly suggest you look at Italian Shoes by Henning Mankell. I have a detailed report of our book discussion of this title here.

Finally one of the largest appeals of Burial Rites is that it is a biographical novel about a real person.  We also know from the start that the ending will be tragic, but Kent’s writing is captivating enough to keep us reading.  For these reasons, I suggest two other titles where we already know the main characters are destined to meet a bad end.
  • True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey [which is also ironically set in Kent’s native Austrailia]
  • Loving Frank by Nancy Horan [I knew what was coming at the end of Mamah’s story, but other may not.]

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