Friday, September 27, 2013

Review - Burial Rites

Lately in Anchorage, it has been gray and rainy. This typical fall weather in Alaska always makes me want to curl up in a chair with a cup of tea and a book that helps me forget the rest of the world. I had an advanced ecopy courtesy of NetGalley that perfectly fit the bill. The weather in the book was also often cold and overcast: perfect match!

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent. Published September 2013 by Little, Brown and Company, 336 pages.

Bottom Line: Highly recommended. A melancholy look at life in early 19th century Iceland and the last person to be executed in that country. Really good at exploring themes of loneliness, relationships, redemption, and society. Fascinating glimpse into Icelandic society. Should be picked up by most public libraries. Will appeal to historical fiction fans and literary fiction readers.

In 1829 in Iceland, two men have died horrible deaths and three people are tried for the crime. Two are sentenced to death and one to life in prison. While they await confirmation of the sentence from the ruling Danish officials, Agnes is moved to a farm in the valley where she grew up to be held prisoner in the home of a minor government official.

Of course the official and his family have no prison on their land, so Agnes lives with the family as a servant, gradually revealing her own story and becoming part of that family's story.

Utterly fascinating. I didn't know much about life in Iceland and I loved this peek at how it worked. For example I didn't know that Iceland was ruled over by the Denmark (and the Danish King) from the 13th century until the end of WWII. All the little details about life in such a harsh Northern climate, on farms where people were barely surviving were beautifully woven into the story. At no point did you feel like you were receiving a history and sociology lesson, but rather that you were seeing into their society. (It should be noted that the author is an Australian who has spent considerable time in Iceland.)

The setting is dramatically described as both culturally and physically harsh. Flashes of Agnes' life are revealed as we see how hard it was to be an unwanted child, a servant, in a time where survival was not guaranteed even for the wanted children of well off farmers.

Writing is lyric and melancholy. Haunting and mesmerizing are adjectives used to describe books so often as to become meaningless cliches, but they apply.

What I loved about this book that I didn't realize how much I enjoyed it until after a few weeks of deliberation was the lack of didactic moralizing. This isn't a story against the death penalty. It is just a story, just a thing that happened. Steinbeck did the same type of storytelling with Of Mice and Men. These are the tales of how people live, how horrible things can happen without horrible intentions, how life can be hard, survival a challenge and beauty still exist.

As a funny note, I read this as an ebook advanced copy from NetGalley. The library's copy arrived on Wednesday. On Thursday a high schooler arrived with an assignment to read any book more than 250 pages not by an American author. I book talked this one to her and she left with it very happily. Fortuitous timing.

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