Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Burial Rites ~ Hannah Kent

After hearing an interview on the radio about this book, I needed to invest in it and find out for myself what all the fuss is about. And there is much fuss. Whether or not it is wholly true, it was said during this interview that Hannah Kent was a student when she wrote Burial Rites as part of achieving her degree, and the MS was so good she was encouraged to write further and incorporate subplots involving the family more. The Christian faith aspect of this book also raised some serious interest...

You can read the back page blurb here.

My favourite character in this book is definitely the condemned, and for all kinds of reasons. As Agnes' story unfolded I found myself at times overwhelmed with compassion, and it was impossible to keep from relating her story to similar stories today. There is little doubt that if she were to undergo the same trial by post-modern standards, her situation would be different.

To my mind, the biggest issue in this book is bias. How do we treat people? How do we accept them based on what they do, did, or have not done? Do we respond to a cry for help (however it may be voiced), or is there no cry at all? It's a very intelligent and intellectual read and I finally find myself falling prey to the 'literary-vs-entertainment' argument. This book is both.

Agnes faces deeper issues that in 1829 received far less understanding. Her situation is precarious, and as injustice begins to surface, hope for her existence dims.

The people of Iceland are steeped in Christian traditions but it seems to be ritualistic rather than relational. It provides an interesting background upon which to set the story. Superstitions and dreams play a huge part in the behaviour and beliefs of these people.
Tóti is the novice assistant reverend charged with redeeming Agnes' soul before her execution, and it quickly becomes apparent that clichés and platitudes are not going to cut it with her. He must approach her differently, and his feelings of inadequacy are easy to connect with. Tóti prays for wisdom with as much earnest as though he were the condemned, such is the burden upon his heart for Agnes.

Finally Tóti makes progress but this comes at a personal cost. Now that Agnes has begun to relate her story to him, he disappears from the radar without explanation. Apart from feeling abandoned, she is left with nothing else but to relate to the family with whom she will spend the remainder of her days. It is in this process that the Jónssons find it within their character to not only listen to her, but warm to her and invite her into their hearts. In disgust, fear, and embarrassment they have staunchly held her beyond arm’s length, and this opening leads to their undoing in a powerful way.

The other characters that fill this unforgiving landscape will have you tearing your hair out with frustration as well as smiling with knowing. Every aspect is powerful and scarcely a word is wasted, right up to the ending where hope is against itself. It will stay with you for a long time, and hopefully it will open your mind to grace more than anything else.

It’s a very powerful, provocative read that should be experienced rather than pontificated about, as you will need to make up your own mind. I did enjoy it and all it made me consider, and I think more than anything that is why this book came about. And for me, Tóti is a fresh example of what people of faith can do and be once they die to themselves and take up their cross to follow the call of God's grace.

It will be interesting to see if more comes from Hannah Kent, as she has made quite a standard for herself to follow. 

"For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God..." Ephesians 2v8

En effet, c'est par la grâce que vous êtes sauvés, par le moyen de la foi. Et cela ne vient pas de vous, c'est le don de Dieu.

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