Archive for January, 2014

BURIAL RITES by Hannah Kent

‘‘They said I must die. They said that I stole the breaths from men, and now they must steal mine. I imagine, then, that we are all candle flames, greasy-bright, fluttering in the darkness and the howl of the wind, and in the stillness of the room I hear footsteps, awful coming footsteps, coming to blow me out and send my life up away from me in a grey wreath of smoke.’
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 office 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.’
What is striking about the Amazon page for this debut novel is not the description above, but the veritable avalanche of praise from critics. Would the members of Berwick Book Group be of the same opinion? Eight of us met at The Barrels Ale House on a raw January night (which made the hot mulled wine on offer very welcome!) to find out.
The answer was a resounding ‘yes’. Everyone loved Burial Rites. We found it haunting and evocative, with a real sense of the claustrophobia of life at that time in that environment. Glynis and Rose had both been to Iceland and vouched for West’s accurate and powerful evocation of place. In Burial Rites, the landscape traps people – it is a powerful adversary, particularly in winter, which was a struggle for survival. Agnes was compelled to be dependent on others and live with the way they treated her because she needed a roof over her head: ‘the uninhabited places are as cruel as any executioner’. Then there was the claustrophobia created by a society in which the twin pillars of patriarchy, State (personified in the sadistic Blondaal, the district commissioner) and Church, ruled over every aspect of life. Paula was particularly fascinated by the naming scheme in Icelandic society, which reflected the patriarchal structure. Martin was also intrigued by this, and enjoyed the tongue-twisting names, as he describes here, in his blog contribution.
‘Prejudice, ignorance, malice, spite, envy, greed. Even without a thesaurus the adjectives multiply. A good book firstly because I like immersing myself in a different culture. It’s like the great Russian novels, forcing your tongue mentally around the polysyllabic names and the different rhythms of a different language appeals to me. I was also intrigued by the practicalities of execution. It is one thing to pronounce a judgement but another thing to carry it out. The author accepted the Commissioner’s report that it went smoothly but I wouldn’t take his word that the sun had risen. Lastly, returning to my list of adjectives. Living in such a severe climate, with so few resources I do wonder how they found the energy for so many ill-feelings. Yes. A good book and a thought provoking one.’
Thankfully Toti, the assistant priest assigned to give Agnes religious counsel, chose instead to simply listen to her story. This story-telling element was something else we all appreciated. At one point in the book, Agnes says, ‘Everything I said was taken from me and altered until the story wasn’t my own.’ By telling her story, she reclaims herself and also taps into the Icelandic Saga tradition, which we thought was also present in the poetic style of the writing, and in the use of dreams, portents and superstitions.
We felt that the book explored issues still relevant today – the way a strong woman is perceived – how women are punished more severely for their crimes. The strong evocation of the loneliness of Agnes, and the loneliness of life in those isolated communities, was also discussed. Agnes herself came in for some interrogation. Glynis thought that her motives for the killing were never clear – we all had different interpretations of those motives – and Bronwen suspected that her story was, in parts, a lie. The fragmented narrative structure (both third person and first person voices, and the inclusion of historical documentation) added to our doubt, keeping us guessing and putting us in the role of detective, searching for clues. We had an interesting discussion on the use of historical documents within the text. Bronwen found them intrusive and unnecessary but others, Jill included, enjoyed that aspect, particularly the chillingly formal style of Blondaal’s letters set against the personal tragedy unfolding for Agnes.
We were all moved both by the scene where Agnes ‘confesses’ to Margret – a surrogate mother figure – over some warm milk, and by the scene leading up to the execution, where we were impressed by West’s restraint.
Finally, a blog contribution from Barbara, who couldn’t attend the meeting:
‘I was drawn into the book almost immediately and found the characters of Agnes and Toti had particular depth. The writing is extremely accomplished and I felt the author did a wonderful job of pulling the reader into this atmosphere of cold, poverty and bitterness. That she has done so with what must be very little factual detail shows a mature storytelling craft. I also found myself holding my breath at the end, which had real impact.
The one disappointment was the banality of the actual incidents that led to the murders. Certainly it was realistic, but it seemed that the author built us up to expect something much more interesting, particularly with her hints at the character of Natan and our knowledge that there is so much more to Agnes. In the end, though, I wished the author’s imagination – so vivid at creating characters – could have come up with something better as a scenario for murder (given that, I assume, she was fictionalising a great deal).
I don’t really like to criticise, though, as in general I thought it was a very polished, atmospheric and gripping book.’
I’ll finish, as usual, with some reads recommended by group members.
Martin had a recommendation linked to Burial Rites: The Emigrants by Vilhelm Moburg. ‘A series of novels about the Swedes who populated much of Minnesota. Highly recommended. They mirror the stifling control exercised by a state/church which condemned people to a form of near slavery enforced by both sectarian punishment and the threat of hell in the hereafter.’
Other recommendations included:
The Old Ways by Robert MacFarlane
A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka
The Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard
Bringing It All Back Home by Ian Clayton
Last Train to Scarborough by Andrew Martin

Ann Coburn


About the book group

The Berwick Book Group meets on the first Tuesday of every month at the First Class Passenger Lounge on the platform of Berwick Train Station at 6.30pm.

If you would like more information about what the group is reading, please visit

January 2014
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