Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

burial rites.jpgAs is often the way, I bought this after hearing about it online and let it sit on my precariously leaning tower of a TBR list. I read pretty widely, generally I’ll give everything a go, but I guess it’s not so often I am in the mood for a darkly atmospheric historical novel. Of course when the time came to read this, I devoured it in one or two sittings. I was lucky enough to go to the launch of Hannah Kent’s second book, The Good People, and before I read that one I wanted to write a few words about her astonishing debut. One thing I will say about that event is that during the ‘in conversation’ segment of the launch I was amazed and impressed by Kent’s eloquence, the flow of her speech, and the calm intelligence of her answers, unexpected in such a young writer.

In 1829, a man and woman were beheaded for a murder committed on a remote farm. There were no prisons in Iceland, so the woman was held at a farm where she’d lived as a child, with the farmer’s wife and daughters as her guards. Burial Rites is her story: Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last woman to be beheaded in Iceland.

While she stays at the farm, she is regularly visited by Tóti, the assistant reverend, to take her confession. The family shy away from her, and only Tóti feels compelled to try to understand her as he hears her story and tries to save her soul. The Arctic summer passages into a dark, bleak winter, and the execution date looms closer and closer.

Hannah Kent’s writing is cut-glass, sparse, poetic and sometimes brutally matter-of-fact. No word is wasted. This prose, with the level of obsessive research that has gone into this piece, makes for utterly immersive storytelling. Agnes is compelling and unlikeable and human; with each passing page and each passing encounter with Tóti, with the farmer’s family, with the memories she shares, gives the reader space to connect with her.

It’s a slow-burning novel, and I don’t recommend reading it over several days, unless maybe they’re cold winter nights and you have a hot chocolate in your hand. For me, this was totally a lie-down, curl up in a blanket, and read for hours until it is done, kind of a book.

The Guardian called Burial Rites ‘the announcement of a writer to watch’, and they’re absolutely right.

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And I Darken by Kiersten White

andidarken

Last week I was on holiday and I read four books – so stay tuned for more reviewing!

Contrary to my usual format, I don’t know if there’s going to be a ‘what I didn’t like’ section for this book. I blasted through this in a day, even though it is 400…500? pages long (I don’t have it with me, awks). This book was released the day before I went on holiday, and I stayed in all day (partly doing dissertation work and packing…partly in anticipation) to wait for my pre-order to arrive. I’m so glad it did, this was a highlight of my reading month. Let’s get into the review.

Synopsis

And I Darken is a retelling of the life of Vlad the Impaler – but in this case, Vlad is a girl, Lada. The blurb markets her as a princess the likes of whom you have never experienced. And while I was initially doubtful this book would deliver on that promise, I can safely say it did. Lada is fierce and fiercesome, determined, proud, loyal but not blindly, and entirely self-centred. Against the rich backdrop of the Ottoman Empire, Lada and her exact opposite brother, Radu the Handsome, must navigate the complicated political terrain, wrestle with their own constantly warring feelings toward each other, and figure out once and for all where their own loyalties lie. Initially, they are unwilling to trust Mehmed, who is after all the son of the sultan who holds them hostage against their father, but soon the three of them come to love and rely on each other in an environment where they can trust little else.

What I liked

Let’s start with the obvious: Lada. She was just great. Flawed in unexpected but un-irritating ways. Quite human, and yet utterly inhuman as well. I related to her more than I thought I would. Radu and Mehmed too, are wonderfully crafted characters. Radu and Lada hold the main third-person narration, and while I connected with each of them in different ways I didn’t find myself placing my own character on them – I liked them, as if they were people I knew and I was invested in what they were trying to achieve. Brilliant characterisation.

The setting. This is a period in history (and geography) I know very little about. Fascinating reading – can’t comment on the accuracy of the research but it was flawlessly utilised in the storytelling, not imposing or overwhelming but (certainly from the perspective of a know-nothing Ottoman-ignorant like me) felt real. Well-composed, narratively astute and complementary to the story.

The length. This is an odd one to choose, probably. But as much as I love a chunky book, this one was on the short side of an epic and the long side of a YA novel. It was just the right length for a day of sofa-bound reading when I got sick on holiday. It didn’t drag, and it didn’t rush.

What I didn’t like

Had to put this section in here just for standard formatting sake but do I have anything I didn’t like?

Not really. I felt pretty good about most aspects of this.

I guess, could have had a bit more of the Dad? Prince Vlad of Wallachia The whole conflict on his side of things sounded quite fun, with forces amassed against him, and him an uncaring, spineless and selfish leader. BUT I reckon we’re going to get more of the conflict in Wallachia in the next book, and through a more interesting lens too (but here there be spoilers, so I shan’t elaborate).

Should I read this?

If you’re in the market for some historical epic, without conventional romances or history itself quite as you know it, or if you want to complex, engaging, and morally dubious characters, or if you have been hearing about this and weren’t sure whether to pick it up, then YES. Do read it. Then let me know what you think. Can’t wait for book two.

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