Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

I realise that I may be the last person in the world to read ‘Burial Rites’, Hannah Kent’s much lauded debut novel.

It caught my eye a long time ago, when it was newly published, I acquired a copy, but when it arrived it didn’t call me. I think that maybe I read a little too much about it, maybe I felt that what I read and the knowledge that it was based on real, historical events said to me that there was less reason to read this book that there were to read other books.

I picked it up a little while ago, because it had been waiting for long enough, and it was time for me to either read it or let it go.

When I started to read I discovered that, though the story played out much as I thought it would, though there were no real surprises, the telling of the story was so very good that I had to keep reading.

The facts underpinning this book are simple and stark:

‘Agnes Magnúsdóttir was the last person to be executed in Iceland, convicted for her role in the murders of Natan Ketilsson and Pétur Jónsson on the night between the 13th and 14th of March 1828, at Illugastadir, on the Vatnsnes Peninsula, North Iceland.’

The story opens in  1829, a year after Agnes –and two others– had been found guilty of the two murders. Agnes was sent north, into the custody of District Officer Jón Jónsson, to work on his farm until the time came for her execution.  where she will await the day of her beheading. District Officer, his wife Magrét and two daughters, Lauga and Steina, all of whom regard her with suspicion and distrust, but as they had no choice in the matter and they had to find ways to cope.

17333319Allowed visits from a spiritual advisor , to prepare her for what lay ahead, and Agnes asked for the Assistant Reverend Thorvardur Jónsson. He had no idea why he had been chosen. He was young and inexperienced, and he knew that he was  ill-equipped for the role he was called upon to play.

In time Agnes proves herself to be a good worker on the farm, and quiet and obedient in the house. The family relax, just a little, and Agnes realises and appreciates that. She begins to wonder if a reprieve as possible; and she slowly begins to talk about her past, and about the events that led up to the night of the murders.

The story is so well told. The prose is cool, clear and compelling; perfectly matched to the story.

The setting: 19th  century Iceland, its landscape, its climate,  its small rural communities are as caught perfectly. The isolation of the farms and the claustrophobia that comes when many people must share a small farmhouse are particularly striking. And the atmosphere is exactly right.

The narrative moved from the third person (for the District Officer’s family and the Reverend) and first person (for Agnes) quite naturally, and very effectively. It offered insights into all of the characters thoughts, and it placed events on that terrible, fateful night, as they were lived through by the person charged with the crime, at the centre of the story.

What happened was inevitable, Agnes had realised that, but she realised it far too late. She knew that:

‘All my life people have thought I was too clever.  Too clever by half, they’d say.  And you know what Reverend?  That’s exactly why they don’t pity me.  Because they think I’m too smart, too knowing to get caught up in this by accident.’

Agnes’s story was harrowing, but it was utterly believable. At times it was difficult to read, already know how her story would end, but she had become real to me and so I had to keep turning the pages.

I can understand why ‘Burial Rites’  has been so lauded. The story is compelling and thought-provoking; the writing is rich and atmospheric; and it’s hard to imagine that a better story could have been spun around the known facts.

My only disappointment was the inevitability of it all. Of course the ending was inevitable, but  I couldn’t help feeling that one thing that stood against that, one thing that suggested things really could be different, might have – for me –  been the spark that would transform this book from ‘very good’ to ‘great’, from ‘memorable’ to ‘unforgettable’.

I’m sorry that I couldn’t find that spark.

In the end I found much to admire  but I found little to love; and now I’m not sorry that I can let go of what is ultimately a dark story with an unhappy ending.

Vain Shadow by Jane Hervey

‘Vain Shadow’ was Jane Hervey’s first novel; written in the 1950s but put away and not published until 1963, and now reissued as a Persephone book.

It tells a very simple story; the story of an English family in the middle of the twentieth century, the kind of family that had a country house, a small staff, tenants on its estate, over the four days between the death and the funeral of its patriarch.

It’s simple, but it is special because it is so very well executed.

There are just four chapters – one for each of those four days – observing the widow, the adult children, and the one adult grandchild – daughter of a daughter who had died – and their spouses as they do the things that must be done in that particular period, and begin to come to terms with what the death will mean.

The bereaved family is more concerned with that than with grief for the dead Colonel Winthorpe. When his nurse, preparing to take her leave, stops to rest on ‘his’ chair they react to that as an inappropriate act without the slightest emotional reaction to the fact that he will never sit there again. The picture that they paint of him is the picture of a tyrant, a man who bends his family to his will, and takes pleasure in doing so.

This is not a happy family; it’s a family that has walked through life as it walks through these four days; following the rituals, observing the proprieties, but never sharing their feelings and never ever talking about the things that really matter.

It was interesting to observe that his staff and his tenants felt the loss much more, and dealt with the things that they knew should be done so much better that the family. They gave willingly to a collection for a wreath; and the time that they came to the house, to walk past the coffin and to pay their respects was the most moving in the whole story.

It also gave more depth to the picture that Jane Hervey painted of the family.
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The endpapers of the Persephone Books edition of ‘Vain Shadow'

The endpapers of the Persephone Books edition of ‘Vain Shadow’


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She is an incredibly perceptive writer; drawing each character, and each relationship, clearly, distinctively and believably. She is particularly good at sibling rivalries, and the position of those who have married into the family. And she has a wonderful eye – and ear – for a telling detail. The son sending back his breakfast egg, because it is not exactly how he likes it. The widow’s repeated murmur that now she could have the peach bathroom she had always wanted. The housekeeper sailing off erect on her bike, to tell that tenants on the estate everything that they needed to know. Choice possessions being shared out to save a little on death duties.

She moved skilfully between each and every member of the family, missing nothing of any importance. Even more skilfully, she moves between observation of the characters and their individual streams of consciousness, and she makes it feel entirely natural and right.

The widow and the granddaughter were at the centre of the story. One felt her life was over, that it was too late for her to change. The other felt that she had to make a change, that it was time for her to live that life that she wanted.

There were times I might have laughed and there were times I might have cried, but I did neither. Because Jane Hervey walked the line between those two things so very, very well, and because this story, this family, this situation, felt so horribly, utterly real.

I read that this story is – at least in part – drawn from life, and I don’t doubt that for a moment.

It’s not an easy book to love, but it is a very fine piece of writing, it is utterly compelling, and it has left words and images in my head.

I hope – and I think I believe – that Jane Hervey was the young woman who saw a chance to change her life, and I hope she seized that chance.

Song of the Sea Maid by Rebecca Mascull

This is a beautifully written story, it speaks profoundly, and I know that I am going to go on thinking about it for a very long time.

It begins in the middle of the eighteenth century, with a girl child who lives on the streets. She and her brother had only their wits to live on, stealing what ever they could to survive from one day to the next. I was captivated by this child, by her life and her spirit, by her utter reality, before I even knew her name. And I knew that I had to follow her story before I understood why.

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The day came when she was caught in an audacious act of thievery; and she was taken to an institution for destitute and friendless children. She was heartbroken to be separated from her brother; she knew that he had been seized by what she would later learn was a press-gang, but she couldn’t tell what was his name, what was her name, what was the story of her life.

She was given the name Dawnay Price, for the man who had taken her from the streets, the man she would come to know as her ‘benefactor’. Because it was her great good fortune to have been taken to an enlightened institution, where it was believed that even an impoverished, uneducated, unwanted orphan could be raised to a place in the world.

As Dawnay was raised she developed a fierce intelligence, a burning curiosity about the world and everything in it, and a passion to learn and discover everything she could. She had a calling to be a natural philosopher – and the belief that she could be just that.

It didn’t occur to her that she couldn’t – because she was a girl, because she had no means – because she hadn’t been raised in a family, in a world, that said she couldn’t. That was wonderful, and Dawnay’s voice was to real and so engaging. It reflected her intelligence, her passion and her scientific outlook on life.

She has the good fortune to meet people what are able to help her, and the even greater fortune that they are open-minded enough to give her a chance and to be won over by the wonderfully persuasive way she argues her case. Dawnay wins wonderful chances, to study, and to travel so that she can discover more and theorise more about the world around her. She sees wonderful things, she has remarkable experiences, and she continues to blaze a trail, never accepting that she should be restricted in her quest for knowledge and understanding.

In time she formed some very advanced – and very controversial theories about the world, about how it came to be, and about how it came to be what it was.

I was utterly captivated by Dawany, by her story, by her experiences. She was – they were – so utterly real, and I was infected by her life and her spirit. She reminded me how marvellous it is to be alive in the world, to travel, to learn, to experience. The world that she moved through, the people that she met, the things that she experienced, were every bit as vivid, every bit as alive as she was.  I was  smitten and I turned that pages very quickly, because I was so eager to now how the story would play out.

I appreciated the wonderful depth and breadth of research that underpinned everything; it was lightly worn but it was clearly there, and I couldn’t doubt for a minute that the author loved everything that she learned and everything that she wrote about. She told her story so very well, and she wrote beautifully. There were evocative descriptions and tumbling lists that captured Dawnay’s interest in the world, there was cool, clear storytelling that reflected her scientific outlook, and there were so many ideas, so many lovely details, to consider.

There was drama, there was humour, there was tragedy – everything that a life story should have.

It might be said that Dawnay was lucky, and yes she was, but to some degree she made her own luck.  History is full of stories of women who stepped outside the confines of the society and the situation they were born into. She did have setbacks too.

I noticed similarities in theme between this book and Rebecca Mascull’s first novel – The Visitors – but I appreciated that they were different in  so any ways. I’m inclined to say that the first book was tilted more towards the heart and this one was tilted more towards the head; I loved both, for the same and for different reasons.

A love story does evolve in the latter part of the book; it’s as unconventional as its heroine, and that felt right. The events and the emotions of the closing chapters were unexpected but utterly right.

I know that there are any more things to be said about this book; and I’m sure that there were things that passed me by because I was so caught up with Dawnay and her experiences.

But I’ll just say one more thing – and that’s that I loved the heart and soul of this book.

Policy and Passion by Rosa Praed

The name ‘Praed’ speaks to me of home: because it is very much a Cornish name, and because we have a number of paintings of familiar places, painted by an artist of that name, in out home. That was why the name of Rosa Praed, 19th century author, caught my eye. I couldn’t find a Cornish connection, indeed she came from the opposite side of the world, but when I read about her, and about her books, I was intrigued.

RosaPraedPic-576x1024Rosa Praed was an Australian author, maybe the first to be acclaimed at home and internationally, and though her husband’s career took them to England she continued to write novels set in her homeland. She published more than twenty books between 1880 and 1916, and I liked the look of any of the, but ‘Policy and Passion’ was the book that caught my eye. It filled a year in my 100 Years of Books project, and that title made me think of my beloved Mr Trollope ….

It might well have been influenced by him, but Rosa Praed was the daughter of a cabinet minister and this story is firmly rooted in her world.

At its centre are a father and a daughter.

Thomas Longleat had risen from humble origins to become Premier of Leichardt’s Land (Queensland). He was charismatic, he was respected by his parliamentary colleagues, and he was popular, particularly with the working-classes. A knighthood from Queen Victoria should have been his for the taking, but he made a fatal misstep. He fell in love with the wife of a colleague, Constance Vallancy, and he made use of his position to send her husband away travelling so the he could spend time with his wife. Passion blinded his political judgement and of course there would be consequences ….

Honoria was the Premier’s elder daughter, and she was poised between childhood and womanhood. She was beautiful, she was headstrong, and she lacked a mother to guide her. She turned away an a very eligible suitor, a rising politician loyal to her father, when she was charmed by Hardress Barrington, a visiting English aristocrat. She didn’t know that he would never contemplate marrying the colonial daughter of a self-made man, and that he had it in mind to set her up as his mistress in an establishment of her own. She would find out …..

The characters of father and daughter, and the relationship between them, are beautifully drawn. They were utterly believable and understandable, the products of their lives, their circumstances and their times. I felt for them, and at ties I was infuriated by them. The dialogues between them – as each saw the failings of the other and their beloved that the other was blind to – were marvellous.

The others around them and the world that they moved through were just as well drawn. I never doubted that I had been pulled into a very real time and place.

I appreciated that nothing was too black and white. Hardress Barrington behaved badly, but he did care, he just hadn’t learned to think about and understand how others might feel. And, though Constance Vallancy behaved badly too, she was an abused and unhappy wife, and she found comfort in masculine attention and in lovely things ,,,,

The writing was both clear and lovely, the storytelling was wonderfully engaging, and so I had to keep turning the pages; I was always involved, always anxious to know what happened next.

The two storylines were distinctive, but of course they overlapped, and they were woven together, they worked together beautifully.

The father’s political crisis and the daughter’s coming of age would coincide. The story came dangerously close to melodrama, but it worked because everything that every character said and did rang true. It was fate that maybe overplayed its hand ….

‘Policy and Passion’ is a very fine drama – I’m not sure if it’s ever been dramatised, but it would work beautifully on stage or screen.

I loved it on the page, and I definitely plan to find out more about Rosa Praed and her other books.

The Innocent and the Guilty by Sylvia Townsend Warner

1327035This is a very slim volume, it holds just nine short stories, and it is a little gem. Because Sylvia Warner was so very good at short stories; a mistress of the art. She brought such imagination to stories set in a very real world; she crafted, she distilled, to produce perfect miniatures.

These stories – seven written for the New Yorker and two specially written for this book – are diverse, but they all spin around the theme of innocence and guilt. Not in such black and white terms of course; Sylvia Townsend Warner was much more subtle and much more clever than that.  She wrote with such lovely irony and understatement.

That worked so well for ‘Bruno’, the story of an elderly Scotsman with a very handsome younger companion. He thought that when they went home to his family estate his companion would play nicely, but that wasn’t in his nature.

“Where did Cousin Gilbert find you?”
“He picked me up on a beach.”
“Like a shell?”
“Like a beautiful shell. And sometimes he puts an ear against my ribs and listens to the noise of the sea.”

‘The Perfect Setting’ is a lovely social satire. The widow of a poet is sure that she has uncovered important documents that will enhance his reputation, but the three interested parties who visit her all have very different ideas.

There’s a short story that plays out like a scene from ‘Play for Today.’ ‘The Quality of Mercy’ has two roughly-hewn young men help home a young woman who had had far too much to drink. They are kind, she is grateful, but her family blame them for the state she is in and hurl abuse. It’s simple and its perfectly executed.

So is ‘The Truth in the Cup’. A middle-aged group of hotel guests in putting the world to rights while a storm rages. One man steps outside and finds himself in the eye of the storm, until he finds sanctuary in a phone box. His experience is so vividly captured that this conclusion feels entirely right:

“I’m Crichellow 626,” he said. “Can you hear me?”
The voice encouraged him to go ahead. After a pause, it offered him the alternatives of the Fire Brigade, the Police, the Ambulance Service. None of those seemed perfectly to apply. But it wouldn’t so to sound unappreciative.
“It’s hard to say. You see, the sea’s broken in.”

It’s a fragment – several of these stories are – but fragments that must have been broken away from a whole that was exquisite.

One story though is exceptional, and I think it is one of the finest short stories I have ever read.

‘But at the Stroke of Midnight’ moves from formality to wildness; from domesticity to freedom; from safety to danger. It’s beautifully observed and understood by its author. Some authors would have turns the material into a whole novel – and it could be ‘Lolly Willowes’, reimagained when the author was thinking about the world rather differently – but here it is the perfect miniature.

I can’t explain it – I shouldn’t try to explain it – what I should do is tell you to read it. Don’t look it up; go in cold and be dazzled as I was.

This volume is out of print I’m afraid, but Open Library has it, and I’m told that it’s in the volume of collected short stories that Virago has in print.

I struggle to write about short stories, but I do know that Sylvia Townsend wrote them very, very well.

The Red Notebook by Antoine Laurain

This is a lovely little book: a bittersweet romantic comedy that captivated me from the very first page.

A young woman, Laure, arrives home late at night, after dinner with friends. As she arrives at her apartment block somebody tries to snatch her handbag. She resists, but she is shoved against the door frame and her bag slips from her grasp.

She can’t get through the security door without her keys; she can’t call anyone because she relied on the mobile phone in her bag to remember their numbers; and she can’t get anywhere or do anything without the cash or cards in the purse in her handbag.

It was fortunate that the manager of the hotel across the road saw her very real distress and offered her a room and a bed for the night. Everything could be sorted out in the morning. Except it wouldn’t be that simple.

23129712The next day a bookseller, Laurent, sees the bag sitting on top of a rubbish bin. He recognises that it is a very good bag, not the kind of bag that would be casually discarded, and so he picks it up to hand in at the police station. But he found it wouldn’t be that easy. He was too early and would have to wait for an hour, and then there would be forms to complete and questions to be answered. Laurent couldn’t wait; he had a shop to open and so he left, intending to do something about the bag later.

In the end he decided that he would examine the contents of the bag and see of he could find the owner himself. Of course the purse, the keys and the phone were gone but there were things that could be helpful; a keyring with a hieroglyph, a dry-cleaners ticket, and a novel, personally signed to ‘Laure’ by the author.

And he found a red notebook, that the owner had used to scribble all sorts of notes. He felt rather guilty, reading something so personal, but he hoped that he might find a stronger clue to the identity of the bag, and the more he read the more he realised he really wanted to now her.

Laurent’s efforts to find Laure had results; he found her home, he met her cat, but Laure wasn’t there.

There are more twists in the tale – some predictable and some not – before it reaches exactly the right ending.

This is a story that screams ‘FILM ME!’ I can see it, I really can.

The setting, a lightly romanticised Paris – including a lovely, lovely bookshop – is lovely.

I liked the people. The two leads were nicely balanced, and they were well supported by a jealous girlfriend, an opinionated teenage daughter, a helpful colleague …. It’s a very well balanced cast.

There are lovely details: literary references – that I must confess I didn’t know well enough to know how significant they were; Laure had an interesting occupation; and she had a lovely cat who had a small but significant part to play.

The story is a little contrived, of course it is, but it works well and it does come from the characters; their actions and their emotions.

It works beautifully, as the most charming of entertainments.

I was engaged, and I cared, from start to finish.

The Meeting Place by Mary Hocking

I’m very pleased that when I went to look for a book to read for Mary Hocking Reading Week I found ‘The Meeting Place’, her final novel, published in 1996. As I read I found much to love, much to admire, and a storyteller who had much to say.

The story opens as Clarice Mitchell, a sixty-nine year-old, retired head-teacher, was driving across country. to an isolated farmhouse where she was to rehearse a production of Pericles. She was thinking of the past, because, by chance, she was visiting the family home of her former head-mistress; the woman who had inspired her and made her want to become a teacher too.

Near her journey’s end, as the light faded, she was startled to see a woman in old -fashioned dress standing in open country, where there could surely be no reason for any woman to be.

“It was as if some unseen hand had thrown down an old painting in front of her; a woman standing in a rocky pool formed by a spring.”

But the woman disappears as suddenly as she appeared.

The next day, as two theatre companies rehearse in adjacent barns, Clarice sees another strange woman, in 15th century garb, pass through her rehearsal space. Others suggest that she was a member of the other theatre company, in her costume for their production of the crucible, but though Clarice nods in agreement she knows in her heart that she isn’t. And when she is troubled by dizzy spells she wonders if maybe the job she has taken on is too much for her.

11304857She thinks more and more of the past, of difficulties she faced as a head teacher, of how they affected her relationships with the men in her life, and of how, maybe, she had been restricted because she was a woman.

She wonders about the women she saw, and their stories unfold alongside hers. One is set in the fifteen century, the other is set in the early years of the twentieth century, and though all three stories are distinctive they have similar themes, and they sit well together.

I wouldn’t call this a ghost story or a time-slip story though. It’s more subtle than that, and it’s a much more grown-up story than those descriptions suggest. I’d call it a story set in a place where there is much that is unchanged and timeless, and where the sensitive may perceive echoes of the past.

The smoothness and naturalness of Mary Hocking’s writing made it very easy to keep turning the pages. I’ve seen her compared with Elizabeth Taylor, and I can agree with that comparison, though I would say that Mary Hocking had a little more grit.

I saw a wonderful depth of understanding in all of the sides of the story, and an instinctive grasp of character. Clarice’s character was particularly well done. She was capable, she was intelligent, she was compassionate, and I really don’t think I have read a better portrayal of a woman of her age and generation.

My mother was a teacher of that same generation; she loved teaching and I can imagine them talking over the things that Clarice was remembering, because they were so very, very real.

The only slight weakness of this book, for me, was that the story was told at a certain distance. Mary Hocking presents her characters rather than engaging with them, and gives her writing a degree of coolness. I like a little more warmth, but she does so any things so very well that I will always pick up any of her books that I find.

The end of the story brought everything together, in a way that was sad but inevitable. I realised that it had been foreshadowed, but that I had been caught up with the story and the characters and those signs passed me by.

‘The Meeting Place’ is a wonderfully accomplished, intelligent novel; and I am sorry that it is out of print and that its author isn’t more widely recognised.