Review: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

It is thanks to the Women’s Prize for Fiction that I have read Burial Rites by Hannah Kent. Wanting to make my way through the awards’s shortlist (before attempting the long list) I began with Kent, author of a book I wasn’t sure I would enjoy. Unsurprisingly (considering this almost always happens when I think I won’t like something) I read Burial Rites within a day, it is by far one of the best début fiction I have encountered.

Burial Rites by Hannah KentSet against Iceland’s stark landscape, Hannah Kent brings to vivid life the story of Agnes, who, charged with the brutal murder of her former master, is sent to an isolated farm to await execution. 

Horrified at the prospect of housing a convicted murderer, the family at first avoids Agnes. Only Tóti, a priest Agnes has mysteriously chosen to be her spiritual guardian, seeks to understand her. But as Agnes’s death looms, the farmer’s wife and their daughters learn there is another side to the sensational story they’ve heard.” Synopsis from GoodReads.

Burial Rites is a fictional account of the last public execution in Iceland. Two people are sentenced to death for a brutal murder. As there are no prisons in Iceland one of the two charged, Agnes, must stay at a farmstead in the village in which she grew up. No one believes her to be innocent, the only person “compelled to understand her” is Tóti, a young assistant reverend.

I’ve seen a plethora of reviews praising Kent’s novel, rightly garnered praise at that. I know nothing of Iceland, let alone Iceland in the 1800s, but that knowledge is so far from necessary. (Although, I think a bit of post novel reading research would be interesting). Burial Rites is a character driven masterpiece.

Kent meticulously researched her topic, filling in the gaps between the information to hand. The story is factually based, Agnes the criminal resided with the Jónsdóttir family. Kent fleshed out existing accounts with prose worthy of her accolades. An Australian, you would think she were Icelandic the way she describes this northern landscape.

The description of the farmstead in which the Jónsdóttir’s resided was a surprising poverty. There is no glass in the windows, but dried sheep’s bladder stretched across as acting pane. The wood that should be in place as walls was sold, and the insulating earth fell from the opening this now provided. Jón Jónsson needed to accept Agnes into his home as he was Officer for his district, he had a responsibility he would be forced to obey. However, financially he could not refuse.

Once I had begun it was impossible to stop reading Burial Rites. It was necessary to know Agnes through and through, to come to see her gaoler family care for her. It always interests me how one stranger, one different person, can change the people around them. Either bring out their nasty side in the case of Lauga, or give a sense of identity in the case of Steina – the two Jónsdóttir daughters.

There was only one aspect of the story I felt I missed out on, and that was that I did not know what happened to the rest of the characters. Did Margrét live, did the girls marry, what happened to the young reverend. I would have liked to have known. However, I posses an imagination, I can fill in these gaps if I wish.

Although I have see many of the reviews my fellow bloggers have written on this book I did not read them thoroughly. Perhaps then under the impression that I may well come to it read this book. Now I can revisit them to see how our experience compared.

This is the first of the shortlist I have read; two down, four to go.

Review: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

“Hey Alice, I’ve read this book and I think you may like it. It’s about a girl who keeps dying and coming back to li..”

“Good day.”

“No wait, it’s better than it sounds. She is meant for something big and each time she comes back she has a sort of memory of the life bef…”

“I said good day, sir!”

Hello, and welcome to my brain, hot house for assumptions and pre-judgement. That faux conversation is a verbal formation of the thought process I had when I first heard about Life After Life by Kate Atkinson. I was far from amused; the cover looked girly and I feel ‘meh’ about regeneration (Doctor Who’s lame regeneration loop hole has ruined me for life). Essentially I was judging something before I had read it, and I was wrong.

I won my copy of Life After Life from Elena at Books and Reviews, in one of her fantastic Feminist Sundays posts. Do check out her blog, it’s all sorts of wonderful.

Life After Life cover“On a cold and snowy night in 1910, Ursula Todd is born, the third child of a wealthy English banker and his wife. Sadly, she dies before she can draw her first breath. On that same cold and snowy night, Ursula Todd is born, lets out a lusty wail, and embarks upon a life that will be, to say the least, unusual. For as she grows, she also dies, repeatedly, in any number of ways. Clearly history (and Kate Atkinson) have plans for her: In Ursula rests nothing less than the fate of civilization.

Wildly inventive, darkly comic, startlingly poignant — this is Kate Atkinson at her absolute best, playing with time and history, telling a story that is breathtaking for both its audacity and its endless satisfactions.” Synopsis from GoodReads.

Get past the first two pages, which I literally eye-rolled at, and this is a gift that keeps on giving. Atkinson is very clever, each time I felt I was encountering a cliché or overused plot devise she did a u-turn.

Atkinson states the following at the end of my copy of Life After Life, “People always ask you what a book is ‘about’ and I generally make something up as I have no idea what a book is about (it’s ‘about itself), but if pressed, I think I would say Life After Life is about being English. […] Not just the reality of being English, but also what we are in our own imagination.” But, I don’t think Atkinson gives herself enough credit. You get the general feeling that Life After Life is telling you more about WWII than demonstrating the damage to the home front. Ursula, the protagonist, travels through many lives – remembering a shadow of each. Through these various slices in times you experience several sides of the characters and of war. Disappointments, death and sadness litter them all, and ultimately you find yourself hoping that the happy ending was the last.

While set over two world wars this is a novel less about physical destruction as it is about the impact war had on English (and German) people. I think it is easy to forget what an intense and life changing experience it is to live through a war. Two generations behind a world war survivor I have little knowledge of what it is to be scared on a daily basis. I am privileged beyond belief. As time skips back and forth in Life After Life, between 1910 and different periods of time and versions of Ursula’s life, each is a demonstration of how the smallest change can affect life drastically. How living through war makes you a totally different person to the people around you who only know peace.

The only criticism I have of Life After Life is that I found it around 150 pages too long, and got to a point near the end where I was very bored. Atkinson, I feel, goes through more versions of Ursula’s life that I was ready to absorb. I found Ursula’s lives in German the most irksome, her resolve to kill Hitler uninteresting. However, this is not how the novel ends, so I was saved from disliking the novel. That, and I longed for Ursula’s older brother to be more loving, and to be loved more. There is nothing more tragic than an emotionally distant ostracised child.

Life After Life is my second Atkinson novel (I have previously read one of the Jackson Brodie series), one that I am sure will set the way for me to read and enjoy more.

Review: Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood

Ever find there are the books that take you try after try before you can get past the first page, until suddenly you become enveloped into the story? A majority of my favourite books have been slow starters; Persuasion, Parade’s End, Game of Thrones… They all begin with a hefty set-up before finally something brilliant happens and you struggle to put the book down even to go to the toilet. Thankfully, I have yet to wet myself, but who knows when that perfect book comes along to make even an urgent need to pass urine unimportant.

With my online book buying ban in full force – and all independent book shops in my area closing before I can get to them after work – I am forced to read the books I already own. Which as it turns out, is both helpful and problematic, as I have found myself far from in the mood to read any of them. In fact, over the past two weeks I have tried to begin Goodbye to Berlin four times. To wit, in the face of an urgent need to read and no new book to procure I finally forced myself past the first chapter of Goodbye to Berlin, and I am so pleased I did.

Goodbye to Berlin cover“First published in 1939, Goodbye to Berlin is a brilliant evocation of the decadence and repression, glamour and sleaze of Berlin society in the 1930’s – the time when Hitler slowly starts his move to power. It is inhabited by a wealth of characters: the unforgettable and “divinely decadent” Sally Bowles; plump Fräulein Schroeder, Peter and Otto, a gay couple struggling to come to terms with their relationship; and the distinguished and doomed Jewish family, the Landauers.” Synopsis from GoodReads.

Having only a passing knowledge of Cabaret, the film loosely based on Goodbye to Berlin, I had some misguided assumptions of this book. I had assumed I would follow Christopher and Sally as they watched Berlin transform from the economically reduced Weimar Republic to the the Nazi regime. While the latter is true Sally is but a small fragment of a wealth of characters Isherwood depicts.

‘”There’s a lot of heart failure,” said the fat man, “in Germany these days.”‘

That line is a conversation Christopher overhears in Prague concerning his Jewish friends. It encompasses the underlying discomfort within the book. Throughout Christopher’s experiences in Berlin is a string tying each together, the Nazi effect. Even those who are not supporters of fascism or the Nazi’s are still discriminatory or Anti-Semitic on some level. The conversion the sentence above comes from quickly turns into a joke about a Jew.

Goodbye to Berlin gave me the impression that prejudice was okay until someone went to far and it was deemed unacceptable. It’s never a suggestion that due to these attitudes all the characters are bad; although inexcusable, attitudes are a product of ignorance and upbringing. However, these attitudes can leave a  reader feeling somewhat off kiter to Christopher and his companions. It could not be suggested any of Christopher’s companions are either good or bad, they are too richly contradictory for that. A variety of eccentric personalities living in a country ravaged and humiliated by the after effects of WWI.

There is a lament for the loss of old Germany, a Germany of more decadence and fun. Equivocal to the 20s ‘Bright Young Things’ movement in England. It is an aesthetic hedonism that was never going to last, as it didn’t in any country beyond 1930 – it quickly became tiresome.

I never came to love the people Christopher encounters, and neither perhaps does he. Yet, there is such a sense of loss at the end of the book – he may not have loved them, but he will miss them.

“The sun shines, and Hitler is master of this city. The sun shines, and dozens of my friends – my pupils at the workers school, the men and women I met at I.A.H. – are all in prison, possibly dead.”