The No Scrubs Book Club: Burial Rites

The club has met several times since my last post, and books continued to be set, but thanks to life events I mostly just turned up for the food and the company.

But now I’m back in the swing of things, and very excited to bring you our most recent book: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent.

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And in keeping with my last post, look at the variety in those covers!

Published only last year, Burial Rites is based on the true story Agnes Magnusdottir, the last woman executed in Iceland. Accused and found guilty of the murder of two men with two fellow conspirators, Agnes is first kept in a dark cell, and then, after an unspecified incident, moved to the farmhouse of a rural leader and his family. Agnes is allowed one comfort: a churchman to prepare her for death. To the surprise of all – including himself – she chooses a junior priest. The story begins with her removal to the farm, unravelling her past as she comes to terms with her short future.

Hannah Kent is only a year older than I am, and a year younger than most of our book club, and we all feel terrible about ourselves as a result. Aside from the incredible bidding war this book incited (a million dollar advance for a first novel? FOR AN AUSTRALIAN AUTHOR? Pigs have flown, and Hannah Kent must be riding one in a tiara), her prose is absolutely beautiful. Evocative and visceral, but clean and unfussy. She paints such a grim, dirty, honest picture of Iceland and the lives of its working class with all its phlegm and semi-transparent bladder windows that you feel like you’re there – and rather than wanting to get out, as upperclass district commissioner Bjorn Blondal does during a visit to the farmhouse, you want to stay and watch their lives unfold. And you do. The book covers some months and despite the murderess sleeping unshackled in their badstofa (of which the family members have differing opinions) they get on with their seasonal work and chores, which is necessary to their survival. The way Kent weaves the reality of their daily lives is unobtrusive, but engaging.

‘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.’

Agnes is an interesting character. As the prose skips between her inner monologue to third person, we see her from within and without. From the outside she’s calm, practical, almost impenetrable, but kind. But of course, the inside of her mind is a stark opposite. She pours over her history, frets over her future, thinks passionately – both positively and angrily – about her lover. Her voice is mature, worldly and honest. She knows what the public thinks of her – a thirty-three year old unmarried woman known to have been sleeping with men, cold and proud and bewitching – versus her alleged conspirators – one passionate young man and one beautiful, innocent teenage girl – and she knows that there is no hope of redemption in their eyes. But still she reaches for it. This is not a woman who gives up and waits for death.

‘I don’t want to be remembered, I want to be here!’

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This book was something pretty special. Incredibly hard to put down (I read it in three sittings, and only because my kindle ran out of batteries) deeply sad but also a sort of celebration of life. All of us who finished it loved it, and everyone who was in the process had nothing negative to say.

Though I was alone in finding Steina absolutely wonderful. I’ve got a thing for well meaning pain-in-the-asses in fiction.

I could talk more about this book (particularly the character of Magret), but the joy of it is in the details and the unfolding relationships. It gets a healthy 4.5 stars from me, and I both look forward to Hannah Kent’s next work and do not envy her the task of topping this one.

Nor do I envy the task of topping next month’s book club! I hosted this time, and we put on a darn good spread.

Next Month: Another Australian author! This time even closer to home. We’ll be reading Elemental by Perth resident Amanda Curtin.

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