Tag Archives: Iceland

Book Review Saturday – ‘Burial Rites’

I’d heard so much about this book before I picked it up that I almost felt like I’d already read it.

Image: picador.com

Image: picador.com

Hannah Kent is an absurdly young and talented Australian, for whom Burial Rites is a debut novel. It was born out of her love of Iceland, cultivated by a year-long trip she took there as a teenager, and that love drips off every page. The novel tells the story of Agnes Magnusdottir, the last woman to be executed in Iceland (in 1829), about whom very little is known besides the fact that she lived, and she died in the most public manner possible. Kent takes the bones of this story and creates a fully-fleshed tale out of them, taking us through Agnes’ youth and childhood, her religious faith, her passion for her family and for her lover, the man for whose murder she was executed, and finally the situation she finds herself in as the book opens, working as an indentured servant – essentially, a prisoner – on an isolated farm as she waits to hear when she will die. Every description reeks with realism, from the badstofa (or sleeping area) in each cottage, around which much of the ‘living’ was done – i.e. the handworking, the storytelling, the sharing of food – to the agricultural cycle of the seasons, to the slaughtering of animals, to the brutal details of childbirth, death, illness and poverty. This isn’t to say it’s a despairing or depressing book: far from it. For every painful description of suffering, there are passages detailing the beauty of the country, and the characters, all of whom are rounded and believable, lift this book into a realm of art I’ve rarely come across.

There are things I would have changed, though, particularly the fact that many chapters begin with transcriptions of actual letters and legal documents circulated between the Icelandic and Danish authorities relating to Magnusdottir’s case. We read these letters, and then exactly the same information (most of the time) is relayed to us in the chapter that follows. On occasion – an example which comes to mind being the value of the axe which was forged specifically for the execution – we learn details from the letters that aren’t (to my knowledge) repeated in the narrative, but more often than not the letters feel a bit redundant. If they had been collected in an appendix, I think it would have worked better. They’re not without value – I have a degree in history, and I understand the importance of primary sources – but they didn’t add a lot to the book in the manner in which they were used. In my opinion.

However, this was pretty much the only thing about the book which I didn’t enjoy. I loved the fact that the chapters go back and forth between Agnes’ first-person point of view and a third-person narrative voice, in particular. It’s wonderful to read parts of Agnes’ story as though you were her and other parts from a point outside her own head, learning about her childhood, her abandonment by her mother, the siblings she loved and lost, the kindnesses she did for others and her deep, abiding faith. Her life is hard: she has been making her own way from an early age, working her way around the farms of northern Iceland trying to better herself, and when she meets Natan Ketilsson, she feels she may have finally found a home. She works for him, under a promise that she will be the mistress of his house – but things do not work out the way Agnes plans. We know before the story begins that Natan is dead, a victim of murder, and Kent skilfully builds up a picture of his character (was he a God-fearing man, or not? A good, honest worker or a philandering good-for-nothing?) as we learn more about Agnes and the reasons why she finds herself where she is. She is permitted the religious services of a priest to guide her, spiritually, as she prepares for death, and she requests one particular priest who becomes drawn into her narrative, desperate to learn more about her – and as she draws him in, she begins to draw the family with whom she has been placed, too. As well as that, she draws the reader. All of us are Agnes’ audience as she tells her tale; I felt like I was huddled around the farmhouse fire in nineteenth-century Iceland, in the candlelit shadows, listening as Agnes told us of her life. We never know if we can trust her, or if what she says is true, but we want to believe it – and this is the true power, and impact, of her character.

The writing is impeccable in this novel. It is polished. It is atmospheric. It is absorbing. The pace is slow in parts, but you almost don’t mind, because the view is so good. The characterisation is incredible – Agnes is a deep and rich individual, but she is not the only one. Every character we meet has a multi-faceted existence, complicated histories and psychologies, each of them striving to survive in the only ways they know, or which are at their disposal. The Iceland of two hundred years ago comes to life in vivid colour, and the conclusion – despite the fact that it is inevitable – is at once harrowing and uplifting.

In short, I can’t quite believe this is a debut novel. Hannah Kent is a remarkable writer, and I look forward to her future work. Burial Rites is, I think, the book of her heart, which is why it is so good, but I’m sure there are plenty more stories in her repertoire.

On Storytelling…

I’m thinking about storytelling this morning, and why we do it; I’m wondering about it because yesterday I came across another book, soon to be published, with a very similar premise to an idea I’ve been working on for a long time.  It’s not my WiP (which is a stroke of luck, sort of!) but something else I’ve written a lot of words on – something like 70,000 – and which I don’t really want to jettison out of hand.  I’m hoping there’s a nugget of story in there, something unique to me, which I can take and build on; something I can make which is different to what exists already.

I blogged recently about a similar theme – i.e. an idea which you’ve cherished and which you then see appearing in the world with a different author’s name on the cover – so I’m trying to take the positive out of it.  The positive is: I must be having good ideas.

But it’s funny, this impulse we have to tell stories, to make things up and to create plots and characters who do things, sometimes things we could or would never do ourselves.  What do we want to achieve as a result?  My ‘previous life’ as an academic who undertook research into texts and stories which were very old – as old as the language itself – means I’ve had an interest in this stuff for a long time.  Nowadays, perhaps, one of the impulses to tell stories is to achieve some sort of fame or immortality – to be remembered as a writer or a storyteller.  That’s a recent thing, in my opinion; so many of the most wonderful stories from the past are completely anonymous, including the vast majority of the medieval romances which I love so much.  I’ve often lamented the fact that we have no idea who wrote most of them, and I wish sometimes that they’d been a little more like modern writers and had thought to ‘sign’ their work.  The few ‘stars’ from the medieval period – Chaucer, Gower, Langland, Hoccleve, Malory, Marie de France (my personal heroine), among a small amount of others known only through the texts they wrote (like ‘the Gawain-poet’) – are vastly outnumbered by the writers of texts which display such skill and talent, and which are entirely free of any trace of their author.  That’s not to mention, of course, the texts which have been entirely lost; there’s no way of knowing how many are no longer in existence, what they were about, and who wrote them.  I lament, at times, for the lost hours of labour and love, sweat and toil, that went into the creation of works like these, of which no trace now remains.

The philosopher Richard Kearney once said something like: ‘We tell each other stories to tell each other who we are’.  If memory serves, he was talking about tales told around campfires by prehistoric men and women, who created the world around them every night after dark through stories and legends, but I think his insight can apply to everyone, and to every time.  In earlier ages, when the court poet (or ‘file’ in Irish) was one of the most important figures in the retinue because he knew the tribe’s history and was responsible for singing it into being, the idea of telling stories to bind a people together or, literally, tell them who they were, was vitally important.  It’s still important now.  It’s little wonder that the mythology of a country is closely guarded by its people, and why we are (or should be) very proud of our ‘national epic’; the English have the majestic Beowulf, the Finns their Kalevala, Icelanders their amazing Sagas and, in Ireland, we have our tales of the Sidhe, the Tuatha de Danann, the Firbolg, the Fomorians, Cuchulainn and Fionn MacCumhaill, among many others.  These sort of tales tell us what was important to our ancestors, what they feared and valued, the principles upon which they founded their societies.  For this reason, as well as the fact that they’re breathtaking works of art, they should be treasured by all of us.

Stories we tell can often say more about us than anything else – the kinds of characters we create betray our own fears and desires, our own loves and dreams; the kinds of situations they get into, and the means by which they make their daring escapes, tell the reader about the adventures dear to the author’s heart.  They might be seen as escapism and fantasy by a modern reader, but to earlier ‘readers’ (I should say ‘audiences’, as most early texts were, of course, recited aloud instead of read in private), they had the added thrill of being real.  When we read Beowulf now, we can caress the words describing the monster Grendel with our eyes and our minds, marvelling at the skill of the poet.  If we were listening to it around a fire in an eighth-century meadhall, we’d probably be more inclined to pull our cloak tighter around ourselves and hope desperately that tonight would not be the night that the monster would come calling.  We’d feel a greater and more passionate loyalty towards our fellow men, and a deep desire to protect our boundaries, our land, and pay homage to our king or liege-lord.  Perhaps that’s the real value of storytelling – it brings people together.  For the brief duration of the tale, every mind listening is focused on the same goal; every eye reading is in the same place, willing the characters on.  Characters, whether the irreproachable heroes of early sagas or the more fleshed-out, flawed human figures of later stories, carry the hopes and deepest desires of every human mind who has come into contact with them – including the mind that made them, and the minds who consume them.

But that’s just my two cents.  What other reasons are there for telling one another tales?  I can’t help but be influenced by my interest in the early periods of the world; has anyone any other thoughts?  Whatever stories you’re telling today, may they be good ones… Happy Tuesday to you all.