Tag Archives: Burial Rites

Books to Look Out for February 2017: Part One

Cover imageFebruary is my least favourite month – dull, often wet, drained of colour – it’s the fag-end of winter here in the UK but at least it’s short. In terms of books however, this year’s February is looking very bright indeed beginning with Sara Baume’s A Line Made by Walking for which my hopes are extremely high. Finding herself out of step with life in the city, Frankie moves into her grandmother’s bungalow, vacant since her death three years ago. Resisting the ennui that threatens to overcome her, she picks up her camera and uses it to reconnect with nature. The result is ‘a profound meditation on the interconnectedness of wilderness, art and individual experience, and a powerful exploration of human frailty’ according to the publishers. I loved Spill Simmer Falter Wither with its wonderfully poetic, sometimes musical language painting gorgeous word pictures of the natural world and am hoping for more of the same from A Line Made by Walking.

Mhairi is also looking for a refuge in Annalena McAfee’s Hame set on the remote Scottish island of Fascaray where she takes her nine-year-old daughter after the breakup of her relationship in New York. Mhairi has been commissioned to write the biography of renowned poet Grigor McWatt. Her subject seems a little slippery but as she uncovers more detail, Mhairi finds there’s a good deal more to McWatt than his reputation as a Scottish national treasure had suggested. ‘A dazzling, kaleidoscope of a novel, Hame layers extracts from Mhairi’s journal, Grigor’s letters and poems and his evocative writing about the island into a compelling narrative that explores identity, love and the universal quest for home’ say the publishers of what sounds like a very satisfying read.Cover image

A few years ago Hannah Kent’s Icelandic-set Burial Rites was everywhere. It’s one of those rare books that, like Spill Simmer Falter Wither, actually lived up to the hype which surrounded it. Hopes are high for The Good People then, although mine have been a little tempered by Kate’s review over at Books Are My Favourite and Best. It’s set in County Kerry in 1825 where newly widowed Nora is caring for her grandson Micheal who can neither speak nor walk. This is a time of superstition – rumour is rife that Micheal is a changeling, a bringer of bad luck. Two women come into Nora’s life who may be able to help her restore him to the health he once enjoyed but not without danger. Kent’s second novel, like her first, is loosely based in fact, apparently.

Set in London a century earlier than The Good People, Jake Arnott’s The Fatal Tree sounds like an entirely different kettle of fish. Jack Sheppard and his lover, Edgeworth Bess, seem to be the only the inhabitants of the city’s underworld to have bested Jonathan Wild, the ‘Thief-Taker General’ determined to get crime under control in the wake of the bursting of the Southsea Bubble. Now in Newgate, condemned to death, Bess dictates their story to Billy Archer, a hack known to Defoe and Swift, and a secret denizen of the city’s molly-houses. Arnott’s first novel, The Long Firm, explored similar territory in 20th-century London blending fact and fiction in a vivid evocation of the times. He’s never quite matched it for me but perhaps The Fatal Tree will buck that trend.

Cover imageAmor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow takes us to Russia in June 1922. Count Alexander Rostov is escorted out of the Kremlin, across Red Square to the Hotel Metropol where an attic room awaits him. Sentenced by a Bolshevik tribunal to indefinite house arrest, the Count is forced to reassess his privileged life while Russia endures decades of upheaval. ‘With the assistance of a glamorous actress, a cantankerous chef and a very serious child, Rostov unexpectedly discovers a new understanding of both pleasure and purpose’, according to the publishers. There’s a fair head of steam behind this one already which always makes me sceptical but Towles’ first novel, The Rules of Civility, was a joy and we all need a bit of that at this time of the year.

That’s it for the first batch of February’s treats. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis if you’re interested. The second part of the preview will be along soon…

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent: One book leads to another

Cover imageI started Burial Rites in the anything but quiet carriage on our way to London on Saturday. Set in 1829, it’s based on the case of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last person to be executed in Iceland. Convicted of the murder of Natan Ketilsson and Pétur Jónsson, Agnes is to be lodged until her execution with the family of a District Officer at Kornsá, by cruel coincidence the farm at which she lived briefly as a foster child. Allowed the counsel of a priest to prepare her for death she chooses Tóti, a young assistant Reverend she met briefly years ago whose kindness she remembers. At first furious at what they regard as an imposition, the family very gradually warms to Agnes as she tells her story to Tóti. She is illegitimate but educated. Declared a pauper, she has spent her adulthood as a servant. When she met Natan her future brightened at the prospect of becoming his housekeeper and his lover, perhaps even his wife, but when she arrives at his homestead she finds a young girl, Sigga, also convicted of Natan’s murder, already installed as housekeeper. As Agnes’s story unfolds, both in her head and to Tóti, Natan emerges as a manipulator and sexual predator. It’s a novel which at times feels claustrophobic with tension. The appalling Icelandic winter, the hugger-mugger conditions of the Kornsá farmstead and the harshness of poverty are starkly described making them all the more vivid. Almost from the start it reminded me ofCover image Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace, also based on a true story of a woman convicted of murder who tells her tale to a young man – an alienist as psychiatrists were then called – although in Grace Marks’ case the sentence was commuted from death to life imprisonment on the grounds of insanity. LIke Alias Grace, Burial Rites is clearly the product of a good deal of research – each of the chapters is introduced with extracts from legal records, correspondence, even poetry – which can sometimes result in leaden fiction, weighed down with too much fact, but Kent succeeds in weaving her findings into a riveting story, slowly engaging her readers’ sympathy for Agnes. In her Author’s Note she says that there are several written accounts of the murder all of which condemn Agnes as an ‘inhumane witch’. By fictionalising the case Kent’s aim was to ‘supply a more ambiguous portrayal of the women’. It’s an excellent first novel – and an object lesson in how very little in life is ever black and white.

And just in case you’re interested in that sort of thing, you can find the Man Booker shortlist here. My money’s on The Lowland.