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Thursday, January 2, 2020

Review and quotes: Burial Rites

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Title: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Book Beginnings quote:

Friday56 quote:

Summary: In 1829 the last public execution took place in Iceland. The murderers, a man and a woman, weren't executed immediately because their case had to be reviewed by the governing body in Denmark. While they waited for the verdict, they had to be housed on farms, since there were no prisons on Iceland. The woman, Agnes, was housed on a farm not far from where she had lived as a child. The family on the farm where she was housed, were understandably upset and concerned about her presence among them. Burial Rites tells the story of this actual historical event. Author Hannah Kent said she wanted to tell Agnes' story and to "supply a more ambiguous portrayal" of a woman who described as a "witch, stirring up murder" in the historical documents. It just so happens that both of the quotes are translations of actual documents from which Ms. Kent was able to create a fictionalized story of Agnes' life.

Review: Agnes Magnúsdóttir's impending death, the year spent on a remote farm in Northern Iceland, and the bleak Islandic setting are a mere back drop to her life story. The reader learns her story as Agnes tells it to Tóti, a young priest assigned to be Agnes' spiritual guide, a man that Agnes remembers from her past for his kindness. As tragic as her death is, her life was equally tragic. Told in first person when Agnes is the narrator or omniscient narrator for the rest, the story and the plot unfold in a rather dreamlike quality. My heart broke for Agnes and for her desperately unhappy existence. The murder, if you want to call it that, is understandable, if not predictable.

I listened to the audiobook, read by Morvan Christie. Though she is a Scottish-born actress, she did amazingly well reading the Icelandic words and phrases like this: It was not hard to believe a beautiful woman capable of murder, Margret thought. As it says in the sagas, Opt er flago i fogru skinni. A witch often has fair skin.” OrBlíndur er bóklaus ma∂ur. Blind is a man without a book.” Or pronouncing names like Agnes Magnúsdóttir. I would have been sunk if I had to attempt the pronunciations myself.

I was completely captivated by the descriptions of life in Iceland, a place I've never read about before. The darkness and wind of the winter bursts forth into glorious summers. After describing winters as making her cold down to her marrow, Agnes says, I feel drunk with summer and sunlight. I want to seize fistfuls of sky and eat them.”

Here are some good questions for our book club discussion. I especially think these two questions are compelling: 
1. Gossip, rumor and prejudice determine Agnes’s end. She is ‘hung’ on the strength of a reputation which is largely conjecture and linked to her poverty. Discuss.
2. Hannah Kent calls her novel a ‘dark love letter to Iceland’ (p 337) in her Acknowledgements. What does she mean by this? Did you read the novel in this way?

With this review I officially close out 2019. RHS book Club selection for later in 2020.

25 comments:

  1. I too am enjoying the setting and atmosphere, but knowing what happens to Agnes is making me hesitant to dive into the book and finish it. I think it will be a great discussion book though!

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    1. I think I read it too soon. I'm afraid the impact will diminish by May And you'll be gone being a grandma!

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  2. I've read Hannah Kent’s second novel, The Good People, which I thought was such a beautifully written and moving book and have been meaning to read Burial Rites. I hope I get round to it this year.

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  3. I think this book was a little ahead of its time, published just before the huge push toward thrillers. It felt completely European to me.

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  4. Oh, yes I've been curious about this one. Thanks for sharing!

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  5. Iceland has become such a popular destination for vacations in the past year or so, but I still feel like I don't know much about it (except they love books).

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    1. I think Icelandic Air has done some specials which cuase people to stopover in Iceland for a few nights.

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  6. This feels like the kind of book that could take a long time to read and even longer to reflect on. Your discussion question number 1 reminds me of how social media can work these days.

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  7. I would love to go to Iceland. But I don't believe I'd have enjoyed it at all in the 1800's. ;-) Thanks for sharing. Happy New Year! I'd love for you and your readers to check out mine. https://lisaksbookthoughts.blogspot.com/2020/01/its-cozy-food-friday-that-means-its.html

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    1. No. After reading this book, I don't see how they could stand living through those winters, burning dung and whale oil for heat and light.

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  8. I'm very interested in checking this one out. I'm always intrigued when a book is based on a true story. Thanks for sharing! Hope you have a great weekend! :)

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  9. Probably not for me, but that story is something else. The graphic nature appeals to me, the era does not.
    Happy weekend!

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  10. Another book I still have not read...even though I've been meaning to for a few years now. Sigh.

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  11. Oh wow this does sound like a tragic, but fascinating, story. And the Iceland setting too- sounds like she captures it amazingly.

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  12. I might say that at first glance, this isn't a book for me! However, I am so intrigued by the premise and your two extracts, that I am more than tempted to add it to my own list!

    The concept of putting prisoners awaiting death, out into wider community, just doesn't bear thinking about.

    I can imagine this being quite a violent, disconcerting read - but at the same time, a fantastic study of the character and period.

    What a fantastic share and may all your 2020 reading be this good :)

    Yvonne
    xx

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  13. I loved this book. Hannah's other book The Good People is also worth reading, though I preferred Burial Rites. If you want more Iceland-set literature (I adore Iceland!), check out works by Halldor Laxness or Sjón.

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  14. Well, I can't tell if that opening letter is tongue-in-cheek, but the book sure doesn't pull any punches as it opens, does it? lol. This sounds like a really good book, though!

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  15. I'm intrigued with this one. I'll have to check it out.

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  16. This sounds like a dark one, especially those quotes! It does sound fascinating, though, and I haven't read much set in Iceland.

    Sue

    Book By Book

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  17. I've been planning on reading this for ages. One of these days.

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