BLURB (FROM AMAZON)
In northern Iceland, 1829, Agnes Magnúsdóttir is condemned to death for her part in the brutal murder of her lover.
Agnes is sent to wait out her final months on the farm of district officer Jón Jónsson, his wife and their two daughters. Horrified to have a convicted murderer in their midst, the family avoid contact with Agnes. Only Tóti, the young assistant priest appointed Agnes’s spiritual guardian, is compelled to try to understand her. As the year progresses and the hardships of rural life force the household to work side by side, Agnes’s story begins to emerge and with it the family’s terrible realization that all is not as they had assumed.
Based on actual events, Burial Rites is an astonishing and moving novel about the truths we claim to know and the ways in which we interpret what we’re told. In beautiful, cut-glass prose, Hannah Kent portrays Iceland’s formidable landscape, in which every day is a battle for survival, and asks, how can one woman hope to endure when her life depends upon the stories told by others?
Confession Time: – I hadn’t actually gotten round to reading the book. So apologies in advance for any and all weird tangents!
Despite the somewhat morbid subject matter; this book was received very positively by the clubbers. While it could have been a mawkish affair, focusing on the murder, conviction and subsequent death sentence; the author chose instead to portray a familial story. Agnes – is a woman pigeon-holed from birth into a particularly low social position. After she was convicted of the murder of a man she had loved, she was forced onto an unwilling family unit due to a lack of appropriate prison facilities. She lives with them for nearly a year, reflecting on her life, the seasons and her growing relationship with each of the family members. Completing this unit is her spiritual advisor – a priest she picked purely because he had once showed her a simple kindness (outside of a religious environment – which I’ve noted was significant but for the time being, I can’t remember why). For the first time in her life, Agnes is listened too. From what I could gather, this story is about her finding her voice, albeit towards the end of her life.
The writing was highly complemented, particularly regarding the descriptions of Iceland, the landscape playing a significant role in the tale. More than one member noted a similarity – with regards to subject matter – with Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood, but all agreed that this story successfully survived the comparison. (While Grace spoke with a psychologist, Agnes found an audience with a priest. In fact, there is a passage apparently when the priest, several months into their meetings, is asked ‘have you prayed with her yet?’ and replies ‘oh no, we haven’t gotten round to that yet’. A starkly different tone from Atwood’s book.) This was further emphasised when a member revealed that this was actually a dissertation thesis and therefore début novel. Most indicated an interest in reading subsequent works by Ms Kent.
Structurally, not telling the story of the trial etc in real time, instead opening with letters before moving into telling Agnes’ story via her moral supporter Father Toti maintained momentum for our intrepid readers. One particularly optimistic member became more and more hopeful as Agnes was allowed to tell her tale. His delight at her story coming out led him to believe that there was a chance that she might receive a last minute reprieve. This despite knowing from the outset that she *was* the last woman executed in Iceland. Which lead to an interesting little side conversation about spoilers, the varying forms that they can take and whether they bother us (For the record, we tended to find the genera dictated our responses. Thrillers usually have twist endings so spoilers can be unfortunate. However in the main, the reading, the story is the point, not the ending). We also ended up comparing this with the superb Common which had recently been on telly.
The trial scene led to a pacey conversation about the variety of factors that lead to her being perceived so negatively by the public. Agnes was older, educated (to an extent – she could read) and came across as capable and intelligent – not ideal for someone who is supposed to be basically a serf. She was vilified while the 15 year old also on trial, the pretty innocent pliant and obedient feminine ideal, was acquitted. As the story revealed more of what had truly taken place; this became increasingly galling. Agnes’ victim was the most recent in a string of men who had abused and betrayed her. That her taking of his life was never in doubt meant that I was surprised by the humanity of the real motivations behind it.
The role of religion and superstition within the novel was also discussed in detail – however I’m afraid that absent of any context, I just got lost. Also – there was a brief discussion of the readers group question and answer section in the physical version of the book. Agnes’ surname also proved to be an interesting and significant point. Again – I knew nothing. So instead of elucidating on that – have a picture of Jennifer Lawrence – who will be portraying Agnes in the upcoming film release.
There was an element of political ambition that seemed to me to be cold and purely self serving. Holding Agnes in the central place with no prison facilities purely because the prosecutor wanted the death sentence to take place in Iceland (rather than in Denmark) seemed particularly cruel. Indeed, the character of the prosecutor as a whole seemed just foul to me. The precarious nature of the lives of the working classes; their dependence on positive referrals and the whims of the ‘master’ – the injustices throughout the book in fact began to wind me up a bit. Everyone assured me that it was a fascinating portrayal of a particular time and place; a journey that I would enjoy and learn from rather than read through clenched teeth.
Then they told me about the execution itself – decapitation by axe – wielded by a family member of her victim. It was a struggle to keep any faith in humanity at that point!! Although a passer-by hearing the roars of laughter from the other book club members would never have imagined it! However, it turned out that it was obvious brutal and horrific because…it couldn’t be described in any other way. What alleviated it from misery porn is that the life that Agnes lived in the immediate months before her execution mattered. The farm hands who had previously viewed her as a monster turned out to demonstrate their support and acceptance of her. It all sounded rather beautiful really.
– Only one member seemed to put in the effort to read the names as they ought to have been pronounced, the majority finding that it was an unwelcome distraction. For some reason this lead to my learning that the welsh for microwave is Poppity-Ping. This is the GREATEST THING SINCE THAT OTHER GREAT THING!
– If you could destroy one book from time and space, would/could you? And if you are monstrous enough – what book would it be?
Turns out that 3 of us are truly virtuous and couldn’t consider every destroying a book (outside of surviving in some dystopian nightmarish vision of the future).
Of the remaining 3, 2 of us were quite open to the idea of eradicating a book but couldn’t fix on which (though perennially loathed Medusa favourties Westwood and A Prayer for Owen Meaney were naturally mentioned). A Confederacy of Dunces and The Fault in our Stars came close to selection but we recognised that they were recent reads and our detestation might fade over time.
As for me – not only was I up for the challenge – I positively relished it! In face, I became downright devious.
I decided to remove Wuthering Shites…sorry Heights from history. That way – as an additional benefit – neither Twilight nor 50 Shades of Grey would exist and a whole generation of women might escape such poor yet oddly prevalent role models.
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