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Title: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent
Book Beginnings 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story and to "supply a more ambiguous portrayal" of a woman who described as a "witch, stirring up murder" in the historical documents.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.” Or “Blíndur 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.
Thursday, January 2, 2020
Review and quotes: Burial Rites
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?