Friday, January 8, 2016

Burial Rites - Hannah Kent

I read this book on the strength of a recommendation by Marie, my sister-in-law, who praised it highly and lent it me, with an eager "Read it!" I'm always compelled by a recommendation, and though historical fiction is not usually my thing, I decided to go for it.
I can't say I was sold straight away on the story. But I did persevere over the first chapter or two and found myself really enjoying it and engaging with the plot and narrative about a third of the way in.
The story is based on a true story of Agnes Magnusdottir, a servant woman accused of killing two men, her employer and lover Natan Ketilsson and his guest, Petur Jonsson. Agnes was the last woman in Iceland to be executed (1830), and was often defiled as a witch or a cursed figure in popular lore. This story, told through records, letters and narratives from different perspectives, occurs in the months preceding her execution, when Agnes is put up in the farmstead of Jon Jonsson, as a servant and maid to his family: steely wife Margret and daughters Lauga and Steina, and where she would meet often with a priest for counsel. This custom was common for convicts facing execution. During these months, in which the changing seasons of Iceland is so beautifully observed, we come to learn of Agnes'very difficult past, through her sessions with Toti, her priest and confidante, but also with her position in the family, which at times really tests the strength of her character. We learn through her various chores and wise observations just how capable she is. The family, though unwelcoming and hostile grow to depend on her. Margret, determined from the outset to keep her in her place, softens her attitude towards the end, and even allows a few moments of compassion or shared understanding with Agnes, moments hinging on intimacy. These moments, for me, were the most touching in the book. This, and Kent's wonderful use of imagery to describe the harsh and bleak beauty of the Icelandic landscape, were the high points of the book.
At times, I feel, the switching voices of the narratives, unsettled the movement and the sense of direction of the story. The facts of the case were complex enough, and I think the use of too many narrative voices to tell the story took from the natural flow of the story.
That said, I did really enjoy the book and I feel I learned a lot about Icelandic customs, and the language. I had to 'google' one word that was so often used: 'badstofa', which I learned is the traditional sleeping quarters in a farmstead, often heated like a sauna...Nice...!

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