Review: Burial Rites

A Sympathetic Ear

Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites Picador, 2013, pp352.Burial-Rites

I hereby confirm that the criminals, Fridrik Sigurdsson and Agnes Magnusdottir will be executed on Tuesday the 12 January, on a little hill close to the cottage of Ranhola, between the farms Holabak and Sveinsstador.

The aforementioned passage was taken from a letter to the District Officers of Svinavatn from District Commissioner Bjorn Blondal. Also in the same letter, Blondal calmly instructs that:

If it is such that the executions are not possible to carry out on this day due to weather, the next day possible will then be selected, and all the people who have been ordered to attend must do so, as stated above.

Hannah Kent’s debut novel, Burial Rites – short listed for the Stella Prize – is based upon the historical events that took place in Iceland between 1828 and 1830. Agnes Mahnusdottir, Fridrik Sigurdsson and Sigridur Gudmundsdottir were convicted for the gruesome murders of Natan Ketilsson – Agnes’s boss and ‘lover’ – and Petur Jonsson, then burning their bodies in an attempt to hide the crime. Agnes and Fridrik would be the last persons executed in Iceland in 1830, while Sigridur, saved from execution, died serving out her life sentence as a servant a few years later.

Before Agnes’ execution, she was interned with District Officer Jon Jonssons family at Kornsa. The family, composed of Jon, his ailing wife Margaret and their two daughters, Steina and Lauga, are reluctant to take on the job of a murderess and a “whore” and make their reluctance known to Agnes.

The family is then later joined by a young clergyman Toti Jonsson who was chosen by Agnes to assist her in the Christian beliefs to prepare her for death and into the arms of Christ. However, with the Icelandic winter and the small space within the house, Agnes and Toti’s conversations are never private. There are several tense scenes where the Jonsson family listens to Anges’s story, convinced that she is telling lies. When Toti first met Agnes, he was very nervous and unsure how to approach a woman convicted of two brutal murders. Toti does learn to become a better listener of Agnes’s story, convinced that she needs a sympathetic ear rather than be showered in prayers and proverbs. It is through this personal conversation that Agnes discloses her life events, a twisted love triangle, and the night of the murders.

Agnes, while reluctantly accepted by the Jonsson family, begins to be an influential and important person around the farm. Her expertise with medicines, farming, slaughter and cooking win her some favour with Margaret and Steina. However, Lauga never trusts Agnes.

Burial Rites is the culmination of Kent’s ten-years of research into the executions. The research is easily visible: there are the translated documents and letters that begin each chapter, the representations of speech and grammar and the intrinsic detail of Icelandic life through slaughter, harvest, Icelandic rituals, winter and summer. The writing is also impressive, offering engaging detail:

Next are the bones, and the heads. I ask Lauga to empty the tallow pot of gristle and water, but she pretends she cannot hear me and keeps her eye fixed ahead of her. Kristin goes instead. When Steina sidles up to me again, smiling shyly, wondering if there is anything I need doing, I ask her to fill the emptied pot with the bones that cannot be used for anything else. Salt. Barley. Water. Steina and I haul the pot next to the poaching blood sausage, for the marrow to leach into the simmering water, for the salt and heat to prise away all the tenderness from the carcass. She claps her hands when we fix the slopping pot upon the hook and immediately begins to throw more fuel on the fire.

However, there is a disadvantage to Kent’s historical narrative. By beginning each chapter with a translated document, Kent sets the boundaries for the chapter and does not look to go outside the historical documents. This, therefore, makes the novel not so much a challenging read – unless you are like me and struggle with the pronunciation of Icelandic names.

Kent’s novel is also divided into a twin narrative. Agnes’ voice is told in first person, while a discrete third-person narrates over Toti and also the Jonsson family. Although Agnes’ voice does not feature as much as I would like it to as her voice can be the most difficult and most compelling voice – “they say I must die They said that I stole the breath from men, and now they must steal mine.” To me, it seems to be a stylistic choice of her troubled and misunderstood life: “They will not see me. I will not be there.”

Although there are small stylistic problems with Kent’s novel, her deep knowledge and research into the events in her attempt to “supply a more ambiguous portrayal of this woman,” and challenge that Agnes was “an inhuman witch, stirring up murder,” succeeds within her twin narrative. While Burial Rites is a book to challenge the idea of Agnes, it is also a book about a woman who lived with the odds stacked against her, leading the reader to question whether Agnes was guilty or not guilty?

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Review: The Night Guest

The Long Goodbye9781926428550

The Night Guest, Fiona McFarlane, 288pp.

Penguin Australia, 2013.

On a trip into town for some shopping, Ruth bumps into a person who turned out to know her:

Mrs Field! Ruth! cried this woman. She was so very small – ‘petite’, Ruth’s mother would have called her – that she made Ruth think of a little toy prised from an expensive Advent calendar. Ruth tried to arrange her face into an expression of recognition; she must have failed because the woman said, with a hopeful smile, ‘It’s Ellen?’

Although McFarlane never uses the word “dementia” in the book, it is clear that Ruth is struggling with it.

The book has a personal connection to me: my grandmother suffers from dementia and have, on several occasions, visited her to receive that same “expression of recognition.” McFarlane, in an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald, revealed, “both my grandmothers suffered from dementia, and I wanted to write respectfully and unsentimentally about this.”

Ruth Field lives alone in her seaside home on the Coast of New South Wales with her favourite chair – helping her ailing back and to watch the whales pass by her house – her cats and her fading memory, blurring together the past and present. Early one morning, a tiger visits Ruth. Not long after the tiger makes its first visit to Ruth’s home, Ruth receives an unexpected visitor, Frida, sent by the government to care for Ruth for a few hours per day.

Gradually, throughout the novel, the true extent of how Frida will “care” for Ruth is revealed. Ruth’s son’s, Jeffery and Phillip, who live in New Zealand and Hong Kong respectively, leave Ruth to her own devices and loneliness, even though they are in constant contact through phone calls. This enables the large, exaggerated and often tender Frida to insert herself into Ruth’s life.

Frida begins by relieving Ruth of duties such as cooking, cleaning and washing. This leaves Ruth to begin reflecting on her past life: growing up in Fiji with her parents, meeting her first love Richard, moving to Australia to experience her first heartbreak, meeting her husband, Harry, having children and eventually retiring to the Coast in New South Wales. Eventually, Ruth and Frida’s relationship quickly becomes indispensible, transforming into a kind of love and reliance:

Ruth waited every weekday morning for Frida to come in her golden taxi, and when she left they fell into silences of relief and regret. Ruth found herself looking forward to the disruption of her days; she was a little disgusted with herself for succumbing so quickly.

As the novel progresses, along with Ruth’s confusion and dementia, Ruth does not know who to trust. Ruth extends an invite to Richard, Ruth’s first love from Fiji, to visit. Richard takes up this offer and does visit for the weekend. However, to Ruth’s surprise, Frida has moved into Phillip’s old room: “Oh, dear. You knew I was staying over, to help with Richard’s visit. Remember?” The growing confusion of Ruth makes it easy for Frida to manipulate Ruth for her own personal gain. However, is this her only true motivation? There are scenes of affection between Ruth and Frida that constantly challenge our expectations of what Frida is really doing.

The Night Guest is a brilliant debut novel from McFarlane. The novel is masterfully created with a compulsive readability around a modern topic. It is unusual for a young writer to write about the elderly, however, McFarlane has produced a suspense novel layered with gentle humour, lonlieness, isolation, memory and tenderness, that studies the vulnerability faced by the elderly. The novel also poses an important question: who is to care for the elderly when others are unwilling or unable to do so?