Tuesday, October 15, 2013

burial rites - hannah kent

I NEED to write about Burial Rites by Hannah Kent- it's a book I was very much looking forward to (see my last post), and yet I ended up feeling a bit ambivalent about it, so I have been itching to discuss it with someone since finishing it. It would be ideal for a book group, but unfortunately we didn't read it in book group, so blog it is!

Burial Rites has an intriguing set-up- a woman (Agnes Magnusdottir) is condemned to death for murder but, since she is living in Iceland in the 19th century and there are no jails, so until her execution she is lodged in a remote farm with with the family of a local official. During her stay she is able to talk to a priest, who is instructed to prepare her for death. To him, and to us, she relates her story. So interwoven with the story of Agnes life at the farm, living with a family who are apprehensive abot hosting a convicted murder and facing her impending death, is the story of Agnes life up to this point, leading to the answer the the all-important question- is she guilty or is hse innocent? Of course, it doesn't turn out to be that simple.

So far, so good- so why was I so ambivalent? Well, mostly the answer lies in the writing style. To me, it felt a bit like the first novel it is. I want to describe it as 'overwritten', but I don't really like that as a criticism. It sounds like 'trying too hard', and what is wrong with trying? What is wrong with using writing that is more than just functional? I feel like I don't have the words to really pick it apart properly, the best I can say is sometimes her turn of phrase would trip me up, jerk me out of the story. It didn't feel as smooth as it could be. Better, though, to just quote some of it, to let you make up your own mind:
"I ought to leave now, I think," Toti announced.
His father looked up from the boiling fish and nodded.
"I'm expected to arrive early in the evening to acquaint myself with the family at Kornsá, and be present when... Well when the criminal arrives." His father frowned. "Go then, son."
Toti hesitated. "Do you think I'm ready?"
A bit of dialogue that seems fairly functional, but committing what some would say is a cardinal sin: too many synonyms for 'said'.  OK, technically most of them are actually other actions but the effect is similar, it seems a bit stilted to me. The same page also features 'muttered', 'called out' and 'whispered'. Then there's this:
"He silently mouthed the word to himself. Murderess. Morðingi. It slipped through his mouth like milk."
The last sentence annoyed me at the time, but I don't know why" it seems fine reading it now. Maybe it is the broader context that made it incongruous, or maybe my mood at the time? It is all so subjective I suppose.

Spending so much time trying to figure out what my problems with the writing style were makes it seem like they were more problematic than they were- this is definitely not a badly written book, I just felt it could be better. And there were moments of writing that I really liked, like this one (though again- why? I think it just seems to capture an idea so well):
I will hold what I am inside, and keep my hands tight around all the things I have seen and heard, and felt... I am sinking all I have left and going underwater. If I speak, it will be in bubbles of air. They will not be able to keep my words for themselves. They will see the whore, the madwoman, the murderess, the female dripping blood into the grass and laughing with her mouth choked with dirt. They will say 'Agnes' and see the spider, the witch caught in the webbing of her own fateful weaving. They might see the lamb circled by ravens, bleating for a lost mother. But they will not see me. I will not be there.
The character of Agnes is also a difficult one. The narrative voice is very different in Agnes' (first person) passages and the third person shifting perspective of everyone else. In a way it felt like Agnes was more dramatic in her own head than in others' perceptions, and there were times when her character felt quite disjointed because of it- more mysterious when there should be more insight. But I can't really fault the book for presenting a disjointed picture of her character, after all, as the passage I've quoted suggests, that theme of identity and story-telling is an important one in the book. Ultimately Agnes is able to tell her story twice- to the other characters in the book, and directly to us. The differences in the way Agnes sees herself and the way others see her can be unexpected- it often feels like the other characters are aware of her humanity while Agnes sees herself as a cursed, doomed figure.

There was a lot here that was thought-provoking, and in the end it was a very moving story, with most characters ending up more nuanced than I feared they might be in the beginning. The book followed up on its promise- and yet... I felt it could be more. Maybe it was simply a case of too high expectations that kept me from loving it. I did like it. I still have to figure out how I feel about it. So please, tell me if you've read it and if so, what did you think?


  1. Anonymous1/11/13 22:51

    what a gruesome theme for a story! Good, but gruesome. I asked myself, "how would all the characters feel?" I wish I'd thought of it myself. I must visit Iceland sometime.

    1. I suppose it's gruesome, I thought it was a bit more melancholy. The question of how the characters would feel was really interesting I thought- and something that really gets explored in the book. And I would also love to visit Iceland! It sounds beautiful.