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Archive for the ‘Burial Rites’ Tag

Pervasive Superstition   Leave a comment

Hannah Kent has a gift for describing squalor and the role of superstition among the most vulnerable. This talented writer, whose debut novel, Burial Rites, was set in Iceland, now transports readers to rural Ireland in The Good People. The ambiguous title refers to the name given to evil faeries and those with virtuous, albeit misdirected, intentions.

Set in nineteenth century rural Ireland, Kent’s engaging narrative follows three women: Nora, a recent widow, with a sickly grandson; Nance, known for her curative powers; and Mary, the young maid Nora hires to help care for the boy who can neither speak nor walk, although he once did.

Nora’s shame for her grandson is so extreme she keeps him hidden and is surprised to learn from Mary that the villagers know of his presence. In fact, they have already deemed him a changeling, a creature from another world, that of the Good People. How else can the locals explain the ill fortunes that have recently befallen their community: death, cows no longer milking, illness and more.

Nora unsuccessfully seeks medical help, then solace from the new priest who both believe the lad will soon die.

Imagining that her grandson has been abducted and the withered but breathing body is left in his place, Nora turns to Nance who is certain she has a cure. Young Mary empathizes with the helpless child and is caught in the middle. She’s skeptical of the older women and their motives. Yet, the question regarding Nance’s powers lingers.

The Good People
Four-and-a-half Bookmarks
Little, Brown and Company, 2016
380 pages

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From Dust to Ice   Leave a comment

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It should come as no surprise from the title of Hannah Kent’s debut novel, Burial Rites, that death plays a major role since it overshadows the entire plot. It is also obvious from the onset who will die and why. What is less clear is the unexpected empathy that develops for the condemned.

Kent creates an unlikely protagonist in Agnes Magnusdottir, charged with the brutal murder of her former lover. While awaiting her execution, Agnes is sent to live with a farmer’s family apprehensive of have a murderess in their home. Like the harsh, cold Icelandic setting in which the story occurs, warmth toward to Agnes is slow to kindle.

The beauty of Kent’s writing lies in her ability to develop an emotional response in readers in much the same way the host family members relinquish their reluctance, revulsion and fear of having Agnes in their midst. The transformation is hard won.

Told in part from Agnes’s perspective, a few official letters, and an omniscient narrator, each character is skillfully portrayed through personality quirks, physical descriptions, and overt reactions. It’s easy to envision the pompous, narrow-minded District Commissioner who inflicts his will. Kent is equally successful in developing Toti, the young assistant reverend Agnes has requested as her spiritual advisor. This uncertain young man, and his faith, evolves as Agnes grows more comfortable sharing details of her life.

The novel, a fictional account of actual events, demonstrates hardened hearts can be softened by honesty, profound interaction, and a good storyteller.

Burial Rites
Four-and-half Bookmarks
Little, Brown and Company, 2013
322 pages