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.

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.

Modesta by G B Stern

I do wish that I could see more people reading more of G B Stern’s books.

I know that ‘The Matriarch’ is back in print, in a lovely new editions; I know that the two books about all things Austen that she wrote with Sheila Kaye-Smith still have many admirers; but she wrote so much more than that – fiction and non fiction, for adults and for children.

I can understand why she’s still relatively obscure, because she wrote a great many books, because they are wildly diverse, and because it is said that some of the are not so strong. But I haven’t found a book I haven’t liked yet, she wrote fiction with such intelligence and wit, and her multiple memoirs – where she writes of anything and everything that has captured her interest are sublime.

I was delighted to find one of her more obscure titles – a novel named ‘Modesta’ that was published in 1929.

I knew nothing about it, but when I started reading I found that I had an utterly charming  social satire, firmly built on an excellent understanding of human nature.

2010183964Modesta was an Italian peasant girl who dreamed of being an English lady. Her father was a landlord and so she was able to spend time talking to his guests, offering them charm and flattery, subtly pointing out the differences between their situation and hers; admiring their lovely things, especially the dresses, the likes of which she could only dream about; arranging  the flowers and make everything nice for them. She was always so, so busy; but she always managed to take the nice jobs and to leave the not-so-nice jobs for her sisters!

She was a minx, but I just had to love her.

Lawrence Ferrier, a wealthy and  idealistic young Englishman proposes marriage, with the chivalrous idea of granting her every wish.

At first things swimmingly

“And here she was, an English signora, Mrs. Laurence Ferrier. Modesta could not pronounce her own name, but she had visiting cards, and that was a joy.”

Modesta  had a lovely time, but she didn’t know when enough was enough.

Her husband had loved the peasant girl he had married, but he didn’t love the spoiled society woman he  turned her into. He blamed himself, and he decided that he had to do something about it.

He sent her back to Italy – alone – so she would have to stand on her own two feet!

He planned to follow her – once she had learned her lesson!

At first Modesta was shocked, but she soon decided that she liked the husband with firm opinions much more than the poor creature who had let her walk all over him; and that she enjoyed being a peasant much more than she liked being a society lady.

Her husband was happy with that – and he found that the change in lifestyle suite as him as much as it suited has wife.

The story plays out beautifully, and there’s a lovely twist at the end.

The style is warm, witty and conversational. It’s clear that the author loved the people and places she is writing about and that she was having a lovely time telling their story. Every character is clearly drawn, their dialogue is exactly right, and there’s just the right amount of detail to make the story sing without weighing it down.

Everything lives and breathes, and I loved it.

As a whole it isn’t quite perfect: there are elements that haven’t dated as well as they might have and a sub-plot involving the Ferrier family doesn’t really work.

It is a lovely light read though , with just enough serious underpinnings to stop it floating away, and I’m so pleased that I met Modesta.

The Girl in the Photograph by Kate Riordan

I find it difficult to resist period romances set in country houses, especially when there’s a hint of suspense or a touch of the gothic, and ‘The Girl in the Photograph’ promised all of that.

This is a story is told in retrospect, recalling events that had happened just a few years earlier.

‘I could never have imagined all that would happen in those few short months and how, by the end of them, my life would have altered irrevocably and for ever’

In 1932 Alice was young, and she was holding down a good job while she waited, quite passively, for when ‘her life – her real life – would begin’. That made her susceptible to a charming older man she met at work. She thought that he was the great love of her life, but he seduced and abandoned her.

23201410Alice’s mother was horrified when she found that her daughter was pregnant, but she was practical and she took matters out of Alice’s hands. She arranged for her daughter to stay with an old friend who was the housekeeper and custodian of  Fiercombe Manor, in the depths of Gloucestershire , while she waited to give birth. She told Alice that she must present herself as a widow, whose husband had died in an accident not long after the wedding, and that when the child was born it would be put up for adoption, so that Alice could resume her old life without shame or stigma.

The story was well told, and it rang true. I believed in Alice’s fall, and in her mother’s response. I understood how each of them must have felt

The  old acquaintance in the country – close enough to offer such help but not so close that she might have any idea that the story she was told was untrue – seemed a little  convenient, but the story was engaging and it held such promise.

“Firecombe is a place of secrets. They fret among the uppermost branches of the beech trees and brood at the cold bottom of the stream that cleaves the valley in two. The past has seeped into the soil here, like spilt blood. If you listen closely enough you can almost hear what’s gone before, particularly on the stillest days. Sometimes the very air seems to hum with anticipation. At other times it’s as though a collective breath has been drawn in and held. It waits, or so it seems to me.”

When Alice arrives at Fiercombe Manor she is uncomfortable with the story she has to tell, and the unwarranted sympathy that she receives. And at night, when the house is silent, she feels another presence in her room. She wonders if the house is haunted, if that is why the family who own the house but who never visit, if there might be a story to be uncovered.

‘I felt intrigued and almost excited, as though a mystery had presented itself to be solved. Delving into the past was just the sort of distraction I needed to take me away from my own present.’

She asks Mrs Jelphs, the housekeeper about the history of the house and about Lady Elizabeth Stanton , the last lady of the manor. Mrs Jelphs had been concerned, helpful and supportive of Alice, she became evasive. Even though she knew that Alice knew that she might have told her a great deal; because years ago she had been Elizabeth’s maid.

Elizabeth’s she recalls the summer of 1898 when she too is awaiting the birth of her child. She lived in Stanton House which was nearby to Fiercombe Manor, but was there no more.  Like Alice, she is pregnant, she is alone and yet not alone, and she is apprehensive about what will happen when her baby is born.

The Girl in the Photograph tells Alice and Elizabeth’s stories, until one of them comes to a  dramatic, shocking end.

The story with beautifully told. The house lived and breathed; the atmosphere, the mystery and intrigue, were pitch perfect; and the gothic overtones were so very well done.

But though I loved Elizabeth’s story, which broke my heart  in the end, I was less taken and less moved by Alice. I found her gauche and self-absorbed, and when I came to the end of the story and thought back to her words in the prologue …. well, that confirmed my feelings..

The writing is gorgeous, the story is readable, and I’m sorry that it doesn’t quite live up to that writing and that it has no more than the writing to set it apart from many other stories like this..

The Wild Geese by Bridget Boland

‘The Wild Geese’ was my third book for Reading Ireland Month, a historical novel set early in the eighteen century.

Britain and Ireland were ruled by the House of Hanover, but the throne was contested by Jacobite rebels, supporters of the descendants of the deposed King James II. Catholics were repressed by their Protestant rulers: they could not own land, enter many trades and professions, educate their children in their faith, or worship as they chose.

Many could not live with those laws, and this story tells of the implications of those laws for one family

It’s a story told entirely in letters.

The Wild Geese

 

Gerald Kinross and Garrett Ahearne were cousins; one Catholic and one Protestant. There was an understanding between them, with the Ahearnes legally owning the estate where the Kinrosses lived and worked, but treating it in every was as the Kinross estate. There was friendship too; the first exchange of letters has one man telling of his decision to send his two sons to France so that they could be given a Catholic education and the other expressing his concerns but acknowledging and accepting his reasons.

Those two sons lose their father while they are in exile. Brandan – the elder – comes home to run the family estate, and his brother, Maurice, joins an Irish regiment abroad ; becoming one of the Wild Geese who, for conscience’s sake, will fight for the Jacobite cause. While his uncle lives Brandan is secure, but when his uncle dies things change.

Thomas Ahearne, his father’s only son, inherits everything that had been his father’s, but he doesn’t see the world as his father did. He is the owner of the Kinross estate and he sees his cousin as his tenant; he questions his failure to pay rent, he questions his management of the property, and he ultimately decides that he must bring Brandan’s tenancy to an end.

Letters between the brothers illuminate Maurice’s experiences abroad and Brandan’s life on the estate. Letters between the cousins track Brandan’s journey from frustration into black despair as Thomas is unmoved and immovable. And threaded through this correspondence is the story of the coming of age of Catharine, the youngest of the Kinrosses, and her falling in love with a friend of her brothers’, another of the Wild Geese.

That this story is told in letters is both its strength and its weakness.

The letters tell the story very effectively and bring the characters to life while remaining utterly believable as correspondence. They caught the emotions of the writers, and I felt for them and reacted to them. But they also limited the story, and stopped it opening out as it might have.

I would have liked to spend more time with Catharine and her friend Mary, who Maurice loved and who Thomas courted. That the cover shows a woman is a little misleading, because they have secondary roles in a story of men. This is a story of history and its consequences rather that  a story of a family and emotional lives.

I would have loved to have Catharine tells her family’s story; and I would have loved Bridget Boland, who became a very successful screenwriter, to have turned The Wild Geese into a film with her at its centre.

I did like the book, as a story of a time in history and as the story of a family.

But I have to say that it’s a ‘pick it up if you see a copy’ book, rather that a ‘go out and find a copy’ book.

Set in Stone by Linda Newberry

A pastiche of a Victorian sensation novel, written for younger reader, and wrapped in a lovely cover was such an enticing proposition. I raced through the opening chapter, part of a framing story, set in an art gallery some years after the events at the heart of the book, eager to reach the story proper.

I was drawn into that story by gorgeous writing, and I saw echoes of wonderful writers of the gothic, the sensational, the romantic. Wilkie Collins, the Bronte sisters, Mrs Radcliffe ….

535646

In 1898, aspiring young artist Samuel Godwin is hired by a Mr Farrow as tutor for his daughters, Juliana and Marianne, at their country house home, Fourwinds.

He found the two sisters to be very different: Marianne was a passionate free spirit while Juliana was quiet, demure, and clearing clinging to secrets that troubled her. And he found that Juliana had reasons to be unhappy. The girls’ mother had died in a tragic accident, their father was cold and remote, and their beloved governess had been taken away from them. But he believed that there was something else.

Maybe that something was the young sculptor who Mr Farrow had commissioned to create statues of the four winds, one for each side of his house. There were just thee glorious statues, somehow both pagan and classical, because the sculptor had been sent away before his work was complete.

Or maybe there was an even darker secret at Fourwinds.

The story is told, in alternate chapters, but Samuel and by Charlotte, who has been hired as governess/companion to the two sisters. She is attentive to her charges, she is clearly fond of them, but she will say nothing at all of her family or her history.

The storytelling is effective and evocative, the plotting is intricate and clever, and the suspense is lovely.

But that falls away as the story advances. I saw where the story was going, and it became a little too predictable.

Of course I could say that this story is written for younger readers, and that I worked things out because I have read a great many gothic romances over the years. But that brings me to another concern. The dark secret concerns incest. It isn’t explicit, and it happens ‘off stage’ before this story begins. But it is clear what happened, and of course the consequences can be seen.

It doesn’t sit well on a book written for young adults; there were other paths that the author could have – I think should have – taken.

I loved the art, and the artists fascination with and hunt for the sculptor. But when he is found suspense is lost, the story loses its impetus, there was a very obvious and unlikely contrivance, and it takes far too long to play out to its conclusion.

There are some really lovely and clever touches, there are moments of high drama, but it wasn’t quite enough.

An overlong – and improbable, maybe even fantastical – conclusion to the framing story was the final straw.

It was such a pity, because Linda Newbery writes very well, and there were any good things on this book.

If only it had been a little leaner, a little less obviously written for young readers, it could have been so special.

As it stands I’m sorry to say that it was a disappointment, and I think I must be much more selective when I pick up literary pastiches in the future.

Vanessa and her Sister by Priya Parmar

I’m wary of novels written about real people whose lives are in living memory; because I think it’s too easy for the line between fact and fiction to be blurred. But I found so many reasons to pick up this book. It has such a lovely cover, it’s set in a milieu that I love, it’s a story of sisters, and it’s a story that places the lesser known of two celebrated sisters at the centre of the stage.

The two sisters are artist Vanessa Bell and writer Virginia Woolf, and this is Vanessa’s story. It’s written as a journal; a fictional journal inspired by her own correspondence and by the writings of many whose paths she crossed.

Vanessa and her Sister

The story begins in 1905. The mother of the Stephens family has been dead for some years, the father of the has died more recently, and their four children – Vanessa, Virginia, and their two brothers, Thoby and Adrian – have moved from the family home in Kensington to a more bohemian shared home in Bloomsbury.

They are preparing for a party – a lovely nod to Mrs Dalloway – and as the book moves forwards there are so many thoughtful details lie that, details that will strike a chord for thoughtful, careful reader.

There will be many parties, and neighbours will gossip about the gatherings at which mixed groups of unchaperoned young people drink and talk about about art and literature until the early hours of the morning.

Some of their names, and the names of others who pass through this story will be familiar to many: Otteline Morrell, Maynard Keynes, Morgan (E M) Forster, Lytton Strachey ….

Vanessa loves her unconventional new life, but, maybe because she is the eldest of the four, she becomes the responsible adult. She manages the housekeeping, she does the household accounts, and she does whatever she can to smooth her sister’s mood swings. There are references to a severe breakdown in the recent past, and it is clear that Vanessa is carefully stage managing family life to try to make sure that nothing like that will happen again.

I could see much that was admirable in Vanessa’s actions, but I could also see cause for concern. Virginia became so  accustomed to having her own way, however selfish and unreasonable that way sometimes was. And she maybe came to believe that she would always be at the centre of Vanessa’s world.

That would become evident when Vanessa became a wife – to art critic Clive Bell – and then a mother.

Parmar follows the lives and the relationships of these three people with keen understanding and with wonderful subtlety. Vanessa’s has doubts about Clive’s courtship, but her resistance softens, and she finds such joy in marriage and in motherhood. Clive though feels ousted, first by his wife’s pregnancy and then by the arrival of his son.  Virginia’s desire to be the sole object of her sister’s attention is thwarted, and, though her behaviour may seem spoilt and selfish, it is clear that she is living of fear of being left alone, and of what her unstable mind might do.

Years later she would write: “My affair with Clive and Nessa turned more of a knife in me than anything else has ever done”.

The writing of Vanessa’s fictional journal is beautiful, and, though it tells a quiet story of lives being lived, there were moments when it caught real emotions so clearly, moments when words caught ideas so very well.

That record is set against telegrams and postcards between other members of her social circle. That is very effective. The correspondence between Lytton Strachey and his friend Leonard Woolf, who was working for the civil service in Ceylon, was a delight and I could have happily read a whole book of it.

Lytton was delighted when the friend who he thought would be the perfect match for his friend Virginia came home.

“I have grown so accustomed to singing for you, like a siren beached up on a friendless rock. Whatever will I do with my time, now that I no longer need to lure you home?”

And of course he was right!

Not all of the correspondence was so successful, and it was a little disappointing to only have a glimpse of many fascinating characters, and that the story came to a conclusion rather too quickly.

This book isn’t definitive, of course it isn’t, but I found the story of Vanessa’s emotional life, and of her progression towards a grown-up, independent future, wonderfully readable.

I particularly liked that it presented so many people usually presented with a label – ‘writer’, ‘artist’, ‘socialite’, ‘critic’ – simply as young people who loved art, who loved literature, who loved Cornwall; who had hopes, dreams, fears, ambitions …..

That, and its lightness of touch, say to me that this would be a lovely introduction for anyone who is a little scared of Virginia Woolf, or for anyone who is wondering who Vanessa Bell was.

For me though, it was a lovely re-introduction …..