Burial Rites by Hannah Kent: Buddy Read with Literary Diversions (Chapters 1- 3)

For April Lianne from Literary Diversions (http://literarydiversions.wordpress.com/) and I are Buddy Reading ‘Burial Rites’ by Hannah Kent.

Our Plan is to post our responses to the book in the form of letters on our blogs. This is the first installment focusing on Chapters 1-3.

******* Spolier Warning ********

There aren’t any particularly huge spoilers in this post but I am not trying to avoid them.

 

Dear Lianne,

Hello! I am finally getting started on these buddyread letters for Burial Rites by Hannah Kent. Real life does have tendency to get in the way of lots of fun things when it puts its mind to it! And Real Life seems to be swallowing April faster than I can keep pace, and definitely faster than I can keep reading.

I am at the beginning of Chapter Four and, oh, this book is already so beautiful. It is heading into winter in my part of the world and I am at home on the farm for the Easter break, the wind is up and the sky is grey and seems to go on forever. And this endless expanse of sky is the impression of Northern Iceland 1829, the setting of Burial Rites, which I have taken away from description of place in the first few chapters. Thankfully the layers of dirt, the dung fires and the lugging of buckets of water from the mountain stream which are part of daily life at Jøn Jønsson’s family croft are not part of daily life for me. I was at a writing panel recently on research and ideas and one of the authors complained about people always painting people of the past as dirty/having questionable personal hygiene, sorry but from the early descriptions of the characters in Burial Rites I am still definitely icked out by the level of dirt, and also, just quietly, by wearing the clothes another person has died in.

For all the times I had seen Burial Rites mentioned, or glimpsed one of its pretty cover(s), in the last few months I have so far remained mostly unaware of the story line (spoiler free zone successfully maintained) so before I started all I really knew was that the book was about a woman (the last woman?) condemned to death for murder (in the past, in some part of Scandinavia (Details are not my forte)) and sent to serve out the time until her execution in a small farming community. At the beginning of Chapter Four this outer sketch is pretty much all we have found out about the story, Agnes, the condemned murderess, has been transferred from a storeroom where she has been imprisoned for several months to the croft of Jøn Jønsson. The characters of Jøn Jønsson’s family, Jøn, his wife and daughters, of Agnes, of Tóti, the priest assigned as Agnes’s confessor, are slowly being revealed to us. And through Agnes we are slowly glimpsing some of the character of her co-condemned and those murdered, and those glimpses are tantalising. Agnes’s voice is compelling and quickly drew sympathy from me, understandable her attention is drawn in to focus on herself and her fate. She is ‘determined to close (herself) to the world, to tighten (her) heart and hold on to what has not yet been stolen from (her)’(p.29) as those who have condemned her she tells us do not know her. Yes I like to sympathise with the underdog but I am also absorbed by the perspectives of Tóti and Margrét, Jøn’s wife, their individual voices are strong and give us small glimpses of the social, political and religious currents in which the story is set. I was completely creeped out by the character of Blöndal after the scene at the Croft with Jøn and Margrét’s daughters but I will try not to let that completely colour my judgement of him for the rest of the book.

The novel switches between points of view within chapters and at the beginning of each chapter there are letters relating to the events surrounding the crime and fate of Agnes and her co-condemned. It is in one of these letters that we learn that Agnes ‘..was confirmed in 1809, at which age she was written as having ‘an excellent intellect, and strong knowledge and understanding of Christianity’.’(p.33). And in another the rather nausea inducing knowledge that the ‘…broader axe from Copenhagen’ (p.85) ordered for the execution cost a significant deal more than expected. I am really hoping that this book does not break my heart by the time that excellent intellect and that broader axe meet.

Well that is all my rambling for today. How are you enjoying the novel so far? What are your early impressions of the landscape, the characters and the language? I must remember to bookmark my favourite quotes for the next letter as there were some quotes I loved in the first few chapters which I could not find again while I was writing this.

Happy Easter and Happy Reading,

Brie