Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Hannah Kent, Burial rites

Courtesy: Picador
Eight enthusiastic Minervans met this week to discuss Hannah Kent's debut novel, Burial rites. We've had, we agreed, a rip-roaring start to the year with all three books so far - Eleanor Catton's The luminaries, Christos Tsiolkas' Barracuda, and Hannah Kent's Burial rites - challenging and exciting us.

For those who don't know, Burial rites is based on the real story of Agnes Magnusdottir who, with two others, was convicted in 1828 of killing two men and setting fire to the house in order to cover their crime. Agnes and the male, Fridrick, were executed in January 1830.

You were there in Iceland, in that house (Minervan)

We all enjoyed the book and found it utterly compelling even though we all knew, of course, that she was the last person to be executed in Iceland*. How did it all happen? Some found the book so satisfying, so beautiful, they read it slowly, one even eking it out over 6 months because she didn't want to finish it! Many of us found it an emotional read.

We loved Kent's evocation of the environment - the poverty, the struggle for food, the dirt. It reminded one member of Halldór Laxness's Independent people, which, while set a century later, evokes the same sense of a hard land to live in. As one member commented, the phrase "as the weather allows" is repeated for a reason!

We talked a little about Iceland's long history, of the various invaders, of the plague and volcanoes - and of the more recent bank collapse calamity. We also discussed the servant-master social structure that allowed a young child like Agnes to be "tossed around" from person to person, with no real support structure, though we agreed that Iceland wouldn't have been unique in this regard at that time.

We enjoyed learning about 19th century Iceland. We learnt about the wide role of ministers which included keeping records about their parishioners, including their characters. We learnt that servants needed their masters' permission to marry. And we noted the poverty of the homes - except for District Commissioner Björn Blöndal's home which had glass windows, wooden walls.

Unbalanced portrayal of men and women (Minervan/Critics)

One of the criticisms levelled at the book concerns uneven portrayal of male and female characters. The male characters tend to be less "rounded" and mostly negatively portrayed, while a few of the female characters, including of course Agnes, have more depth. Some members agreed with this and felt it was a weakness in the book - although not a big enough one to stop their liking it - while others felt it's largely a consequence of the type of book it is and the society it is set in. This is a book about Agnes, and in this story, at this point in her life, her main access to people would have been women, with the exception of Tóti, the Assistant Reverend sent to be her religious adviser. Not surprisingly he's somewhat more rounded, more complex, than most of the other men. We liked the fact that he ignored Blöndal's instructions regarding his "work" with Agnes and conducted his sessions with her according to his sense of her needs. We felt that being an Assistant rather than a full Reverend, meant he was less steeped in (or could break from) the dogma/traditions of his job.

One member felt some of the best parts of the book were when Agnes was talking with the farmer's wife, Margrét. She enjoyed the woman-to-woman, almost mother-daughter talk, that drew out more of Agnes' inner feelings.

Another member commented on the fact that Blöndal was prepared to accept that Fridrick's behaviour could be explained by his poor upbringing, whilst Agnes was merely a spinster spurned!

I smell a device (Minervan)

Our biggest dissensions occurred over style. One member, despite enjoying the book, felt it was too "21st century". She felt Tóti and Margrét used modern counsellor language in their discussions with Agnes. Others didn't see such language in the book and found Tóti credible for his time. Another agreed that it was a 21st century book, saying that Kent had purposefully given a voice to Agnes that she didn't have, and probably couldn't have had, in her lifetime. Doing this made it a 21st century book.

We discussed the criticism that the historical sources introducing the chapters interrupted the flow. We didn't agree, feeling rather that they added credibility to the story.

We briefly discussed the role of sagas in the novel. An excerpt from a saga in which a women incites her bothers to kill for revenge opens the chapter after Fridrick's mother has incited him. Sagas, the member said, are often about "blokes killing" and rarely include much about women.

A member quoted a few lines as an example of lovely writing:
At first I did not know why these people stood about, men and women alike, each still and staring at me in silence. Then I understood that it was not me they stared at. I understood that these people did not see me. I was two dead men. I was a burning farm. I was a knife. I was blood.
We particularly liked the ending, the language, the change in pace, the almost stream of consciousness in Agnes' voice.

One member said she took a while "to get the hang of it". Another questioned whether the 1st to 3rd person shifts were always necessary, pointing to a couple of examples where the import wasn't clear. And a couple questioned an historical "fact". Did the women really need a man to help them "swing" newborn lambs? A calf they could believe, but lambs being small could surely be "swung" by healthy women if needed. They felt this was a device to get the male, Fridrick, on the scene - though the rest of the farm depictions seemed authentic.

We discussed Kent's description of the novel as "speculative biography" rather than as "historical fiction".

"We'll remember you" (Margrét to Agnes)

Kent's aim we felt was to give Agnes a voice that she didn't have at the time - or at least not that Kent could find in the historical record. The book is more, then, about Agnes than the crime, about the role of low-status women in society, and about their lack of power and options. It reminds us that we don't want to go back. One member reminded us that women weren't blameless in the novel, pointing to Poet Rosa and the baby she had with Natan (the victim) while married to someone else.

We discussed Ben Etherington's rather negative description of the novel in the Sydney Review of Books. He called it a "death row novel, Gothic romance and feminist revisionism". We didn't agree or, if we did, we didn't see this as negative! Kent's Agnes feels discriminated against because she was a thinking woman. Is this revisionism? Or is this a believable reading of Agnes?

The book is a powerful story about the desire to live. For all the misery of her life, Agnes still wanted to live. The novel's ending, her fear and distress, was visceral - and believable.

All in all, it was an excellent meeting which covered a lot of ground and yet involved some in-depth discussion of several issues.

* According to Wikipedia, the last Icelander executed occurred four years later in Denmark.

2 comments:

  1. Great coverage of our discussion, and of a wonderful book. We were intrigued by the author's mastery in her first novel, and commented on her obsession with the character and the place. We discussed the movie rights, with Jennifer Lawrence reportedly to star. And we cmmented on Hannah Kent not being the winner of any of the literary awards so far, despite it being the favourite read so far this year for some. A wonderful book to read, which one could easily come back to. We look forward to her next novel, reportedly featuring an Irish heroine!

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    1. Thanks Kate for adding all that ... there was so much we covered wasn't there? It should make for an interesting film. It will be interesting to see her next book ... I wouldn't like to be under her pressure!

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