Tag Archives: literature

Book review: Burial Rites

burial rites by hannah kent 11-5-14So much has been written about this book, I feel pretty sure that by now you know it is the fictionalised story of an Icelandic woman found guilty of murder in the 1820s. You may possibly also know that this book, rich in Icelandic saga and with Iceland present on every page of the story, is written by a young Australian.

If this book does not win a drawerful of awards, it will make me lose faith in literary awards. The confidence with which the story is told defies the knowledge that this is a debut novel, any allowances I had mentally made for a debut are not required. Not only does Kent write a historical novel set in a foreign country with a difficult language, from page one you are in Iceland. Put aside the names of people, the names of the farms [the map at the front of my edition was much thumbed in the beginning, then forgotten], Iceland surrounds you as you read the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir. You sit with her in the badstofa, the smell of the dung walls in your lungs, the dirt under your fingernails.

[photo: hannah kent]

[photo: hannah kent]

“The herb plot of Kornsá is overgrown and wild, surrounded by a rough stone wall that has toppled to the ground at one end. Most of the plants have gone to seed, frostbitten roots rotting in the warmer weather, but there are tansies, and little bitter herbs I remember from Natan’s workshop at Illugastadir, and the angelica smells sweetly.” Natan is the man Agnes is found guilty of murdering. Whilst awaiting arrangements for her execution she is placed with a local family – as is the tradition, this being a rural area with no prisons, no police stations, justice is managed locally – who receive a little extra silver in recompense for their service. Her story is told through a series of official letters about the trial, Agnes own voice and that of Tóti, the reverend she requests to prepare her for execution.

Agnes is made to work for her keep, she is not shackled or locked away. The family is poor, an extra pair of hands to work the land is valuable, even if they watch her every minute. Agnes, for her part, enjoys the fresh air during harvest. “I let my body fall into a rhythm. I sway back and forth and let gravity bring the scythe down and through the grass, until I rock steadily. Until I feel that I am not moving myself, and that the sun is driving me. Until I am a puppet of the wind, and of the scythe, and of the long, slow strokes that propel my body forward. Until I couldn’t stop if I wanted to.”

I was gripped from page one, wanting to know the end of the story, not wanting it to end. Kent has combined poetry with a murder mystery – by the way don’t listen to those reviews which class it as Scandi-crime, this is so much more than that.

[photo: picador.com]

[photo: picador.com]

To visit Hannah Kent’s website, click here.
Click here to read an interview in The Guardian with Hannah Kent [above] in which she explains how she was a long-distance writer.
To watch the book trailer for Burial Rites on You Tube, click here.
To listen to Hannah Kent talk about her visit to Iceland and where the idea for Burial Rites came from, click here.
‘Burial Rites’ by Hannah Kent

Great opening paragraph… 55

Far from the Madding Crowd“When Farmer Oak smiled, the corners of his mouth spread till they were within an unimportant distance of his ears, his eyes were reduced to chinks, and diverging wrinkles appeared round them, extending upon his countenance like the rays in a rudimentary sketch of the rising sun.”

‘Far from the Madding Crowd’ by Thomas Hardy

Book review: Citadel

citadel by kate mosse 20-4-14I read a lot of books. Amongst those with the strongest sense of place, the ones that linger in my imagination, are the Languedoc trilogy by Kate Mosse. Citadel, the third novel in the series, is set in ad342 and 1942 during World War Two. Unusually with a trilogy, you don’t have to have read the other two books in order to enjoy this one. Certainly it is some years since I read Labyrinth and Sepulchre and the details are hazy, each book stands on its own.

I enjoyed this book immensely. The story centres on a small group of women who fight against the Nazi regime and who, by the very fact that they are women, are able to slip unnoticed along the night-time streets of occupied Carcassonne. The Prologue describes ‘the woman known as Sophie’ and the reader is left to wonder, which of the women in the story is ‘Sophie’?

I must point out that the story is slow to get going, I had to be patient, but I trusted Mosse [below]. It did make me question whether my attention span is shortening, I hope not. If it is I must read longer novels to re-stretch my brain.

[photo: Mark Rusher]

[photo: Mark Rusher]

A note in the 2014 edition, which I read, explains that the story was inspired by a plaque in a village near Carcassonne, commemorating the ‘martyrs of Baudrigues’. Days before the Languedoc was freed by its own people, as the Nazis were fleeing, 19 prisoners were killed, two women are to this day still unidentified. These facts started Mosse wondering who those women were: that was her starting point for Citadel.

It is clear that both time strands are set in the same place, the countryside of the Languedoc, the forests, the mountains, its people and language, and the weather, anchors the reader firmly in southern France. In ad342, Arinius is looking for a hiding place. You know not what for, only that it must be safe for ‘centuries’. “He had no particular destination in mind, only that he had to find somewhere distinctive and sheltered, somewhere where the pattern of the ridges and crests might retain their shape for centuries to come… Forests might be cut down or burn or drowned when a river bursts its banks. Fire and word and flood. Only the mountains stood firm.”

Click here to visit the Kate Mosse website, which is packed with information about her novels, videos, location facts and creative writing advice.
Click here to watch Kate talk about Citadel, myths and fantasy.
Click here to watch the Booktopia interview with Kate Mosse, talking about why historical fiction is having ‘a moment’ now.
‘Citadel’ by Kate Mosse [published by Orion]

Great Opening Paragraph… 54

olivia manning - fortunes of war 10-6-13 [1 pic]“Somewhere near Venice, Guy began talking with a heavy, elderly man, a refugee from Germany on his way to Trieste. Guy asked questions. The refugee eagerly replied. Neither seemed aware when the train stopped. In the confusion of a newly created war, the train was stopping every twenty minutes or so. Harriet looked out and saw girders, darker than the twilit darkness, holding an upper rail. Between the girders a couple fumbled and struggled, every now and then thrusting a foot or an elbow out into the light that fell from the carriage windows. Beyond the girders water glinted, reflecting the phosphorescent globes lighting the high rail.”
‘Fortunes of War’ by Olivia Manning

Great opening paragraph… 53

haruki murakami - hard-boiled wonderland and the End of the World 10-6-13“The elevator continued its impossibly slow ascent. Or at least I imagined it was ascent. There was no telling for sure: it was so slow that all sense of direction simply vanished. It could have been going down for all I knew, or maybe it wasn’t moving at all. But let’s assume it was going up. Merely a guess. Maybe I’d gone up twelve stories, then down three. Maybe I’d circled the glove. How would I know?”

‘Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World’ by Haruki Murakami [translated from the Japanese by Alfred Birnbaum]

Great opening paragraph… 52

clare morrall - astonishing splashes of colour 10-6-13“At 3.15 every weekday afternoon, I become anonymous in a crowd of parents and child-minders congregating outside the school gates. To me, waiting for children to come out of school is a quintessential act of motherhood. I see the mums – and the occasional dads – as yellow people. Yellow as the sun, a daffodil, the submarine. But why do we teach children to paint the sun yellow? It’s a deception. The sun is white-hot, brilliant, impossible to see with the naked eye, so why do we confuse brightness with yellow?”
‘Astonishing Splashes of Colour’ by Clare Morrall

To read an interview in The Independent with Clare Morrall about her latest book, After the Bombing, click here.

COMING SOON: my review of After the Bombing.

Great opening paragraph… 51

iris murdoch - the sea, the sea 10-6-13“The sea which lies before me as I write glows rather than sparkles in the bland May sunshine. With the tide turning, it leans quietly against the land, almost unflecked by ripples or by foam. Near to the horizon it is a luxurious purple, spotted with regular lines of emerald green. AT the horizon it is indigo. Near to the shore, where my view is framed by rising heaps of humpy yellow rock, there is a band of lighter green, icy and pure, less radiant, opaque however, not transparent. We are in the north, and the bright sunshine cannot penetrate the sea. Where the gentle water taps the rocks there is still a surface skin of colour. The cloudless sky is very pale at the indigo horizon which it lightly pencils in with silver. Its blue gains towards the zenith and vibrates there. But the sky looks cold, even the sun looks cold.”
‘The Sea, The Sea’ by Iris Murdoch

Great Opening Paragraph… 50

deborah moggach - these foolish things 10-6-13 [1 pic]“Muriel Donnelly, an old girl in her seventies, was left in a hospital cubicle for forty-eight hours. She had taken a tumble in Peckham High Street and was admitted with cuts, bruises and suspected concussion. Two days she lay in A&E, untended, the blood stiffening on her clothes.”
‘These Foolish Things by Deborah Moggach

Great Opening Paragraph… 49

andrea newman - a bouquet of barbed wire 10-6-13“It began to rain as he entered the park, but not hard enough to make him look round for a taxi. Emerging from the station, he had been tempted by a pale gleam of sunshine, sufficient to convince him of the physical benefits of walking. He needed exercise, he had decided, just as he needed fewer cigarettes and less alcohol: it was pathetic how the habits of sloth and self-indulgence crept up unnoticed, along with middle age, that unbecoming state which you did not even recognize until events brought it sharply and unkindly home to you. And now the fine spring rain, for her first day back. He pictured her with painful tenderness, suntanned and shivering, getting ready for college in the unfamiliar flat. Was he too late? Would she still be there by the time he was able to phone? He had left home an hour ahead, under Cassie’s indulgent eyes, to catch an earlier train, feeling he could only telephone properly from the office, yet not knowing what he could possibly find to say that would be sufficiently casual when he finally heard her voice.”
‘A Bouquet of Barbed Wire’ by Andrea Newman

Great Opening Paragraph… 48

Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche - half of a yellow sun 10-6-13“Master was a little crazy; he had spent too many years reading books overseas, talked to himself in his office, did not always return greetings, and had too much hair. Ugwu’s aunty said this in a low voice as they walked on the path. ‘But he is a good man,’ she added. ‘And as long as you work well, you will eat well. You will even eat meat every day.’ She stopped to spit; the saliva left her mouth with a sucking sound and landed on the grass.”
‘Half of a Yellow Sun’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche