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.

Friday, 7 March 2014

Barracuda by Christos Tsiolkas

Courtesy: Allen & Unwin
This very compelling and confronting novel was ‘appreciated’ by the Minervan reading group during February 2014. Some liked Barracuda more than The Slap, others less so.  One comment was that ‘it sang clearer’.  There were various views about the structure of the The Slap versus the complicated structure of Barracuda.  The critics are equally diverse in their opinions on this matter.  What is undeniable for most of us though is that both books grab your attention and hold it until the end.

The underlying message of this book is: what is a good man ?  It is the story of a young man, Danny Kelly, from his teenage years to about 30 and his desire to be the best swimmer in Australia. This theme is often repeated in the book – his Dad is considered a ‘good man’ for instance as is his lover, Clyde, but it is a hard journey for Danny Kelly to find out if he can attain this trait too.  Danny (or Dan as the adult) suffers considerable and long lasting anger, shame, class restrictions and class confrontation, and racism as well as many other high emotional states in order to achieve redemption and some self-awareness. 

Many of the reviews for this novel pick up on Australia’s national obsession with sport but that is not the essence of the book. Swimming is only the vehicle for relating Danny’s journey. The difficulties for swimmer Nick D'Arcy was possibly a catalyst for Tsiolkas’ original idea. Danny is a working class boy who wins a swimming scholarship to an elite private school in Melbourne.  (The school we decided is based on Wesley College.) He suffers all the trauma of a poor Greek kid dealing with and eventually winning over some of the ‘golden boys’ by his behaviour – firstly winning in the pool and then acting psycho after his failure.  So much of the story is told through his thoughts and his pain. He lacks communication skills and confidence and no adult seems to be aware of this except the coach. However even the coach does not help him sufficiently and feels guilty.  Danny wouldn’t let anyone, including his beloved family get too close to him incase they might pity him, and that was to be avoided most of all.

There was some discussion about the use of first and third person in the novel in order to show chronological periods. However these changes flowed and were not difficult to comprehend.  Tsiolkas also cleverly provides some dates to assist the reader with the story line as he jumps about. These devices provide the reader with a ready understanding of Dan’s personality and difficulties, which would not be so apparent if the book was straightly chronological. 

This story is very physical and violent and so is true to the character of a male teenager and young adult, not only in the climactic scene of the fight with Martin Taylor but also in the love scenes and in his interactions with other boys at school.  Tsiolkas has described the sensation of swimming in a race superbly and ‘our’ swimmers especially related well to these descriptions – for instance, how the water sometimes works with you and other days how it doesn’t!  Anger made Danny swim well but it also made him a raging bull when he couldn’t control it.  Maybe his mild mannered persona most of the time made him slip through the cracks for anger management lessons.  Anther very vivid scene was that of the grandmother’s party and her manipulation of her children at the Taylors' beach house which was most unpleasant.  The grandmother also put the shy young Danny on the spot where he didn’t know the rules. Tsiolkas captures Danny’s insecurity so well.
We highlighted the number of ‘real’ swimmers mentioned too, notably Kieran Perkins and Ian Thorpe. This led to one member commenting on the psychological problems suffered by many elite athletes.

Also ‘real’ books are mentioned by Tsiolkas which had an impact upon the boy.  On the way to Adelaide to see his dying grandmother Dan could not tell his mother that books had helped him.  
He'd found a voice that made sense of time and space as he was experiencing it. (page 339)  
We also liked the joke that he enjoyed classics more than more modern novels!

We thought the author captured Melbourne’s atmosphere so well too, this was particularly noticed by the former Melbournians.  For instance, the travel on trains across the city and the beautiful grounds of the school or the architecture of Taylor’s house in comparison with the ordinary Kelly house. The comments about beach houses and their position on the peninsula brought some humour – is Sorrento better or worse than Portsea?

Again Tsiolkas has produced a complex and exciting novel of 21st century Australia. He is one of the few novelists who have really ‘got’ the present age.