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The Good People by Hannah Kent

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A friend lent me Hannah Kent’s second novel a month or so ago, and I finished it quickly. I wanted to, because it was a kind of torture to read it. Kent creates another dark, cold world, where people are cruel and ignorant and without hope, but the bleakness is relieved by little acts of kindness, and by the lyrical beauty of the prose that describes the natural world. Unlike Burial Rites, her acclaimed debut novel, there is no redemption, only loss, and a final dawn escape for one of the characters, which can only be a lonely road towards her end… though one gets the feeling that this is welcomed, for she is accompanied by ‘the birds above her and, in the slow unpeeling of darkness, a divinity of sky.’

Somehow, this book does not resonate in my mind as much as Burial Rites did. I am not sure why. Perhaps because of the predictability of the climax. The clash between the superstition of the villagers and their belief in ancient magic, and the fear and jealousy and brutality of some, exacerbated by the self-righteous stance of the village priest, can only have one sort of outcome, and that is the persecution of the old woman, Nance Roche, who is a natural healer and believes in the magic of The Good People. The object of healing is the four-year-old child Micheal, who was born healthy but has become afflicted physically and mentally. His grandmother Nora struggles to care for him, and hides him from the other villagers; when her husband dies suddenly, she is devastated, and comes to believe that the child is a changeling left by the fairies, who have stolen her grandson.

Nora hires a poor fourteen-year-old girl, Mary, from a distant village, to be her servant and to care for the child. Mary becomes the moral touchstone for the story. She feels tenderness and pity for the little being, and becomes an unwilling accomplice in the healing rituals that Nance performs, with Nora’s consent. When these rituals fail, healing is no longer the object; the object is to force the changeling to return to the fairy world so that the real human child can be restored to his grandmother. To the bitter end, Nora believes that the child is not Micheal. Mary protests and tries to save the child from his death. She becomes a witness in the subsequent trial of the two women, Nance and Nora, and here, too, she is a touchstone of truth, for though she believed at the time that they had murdered the child, she attests that Nance has ‘the knowledge’ of The Good People and their herbs, and her final statement in court is that the ritual that killed Micheal was ‘done with the intent to cure it, sir. To put the fairy out of it,’ and not with the intent of killing him. Hence the two women are acquitted.

Loss is the dominant theme of the story, with darker notes of cruelty and fear, in a world where religion and paganism lock the people in an uneasy tension between a capricious, often cruel world of magic and a self-righteous, patriarchal and at times venal moral code. The real world the people inhabit is evoked with an assured voice, modulating from realistic detail — ‘The smooth whiteness of the fields melted to mud and dying grass, and the valley felt darker for it’ — to poetry of lyrical intensity —  ‘Lough Leane golden, and the surrounding mountains bearing down in holy indigo. The shifting, unfurling clouds passing the sun like pilgrims past a saint.’ Nature itself is divine, as the closing phrase of the symphony reminds us — ‘a divinity of sky.’

This, for me, is the strongest appeal of the book — the natural world, where things just are in their bleakness and beauty. If there is any redemption in the bleak  and tragic human story, it is in the simple truth and compassion of the poor servant girl, the small acts of tenderness and kindness of some of the characters, and the empathy with which Kent performs her characters; they are dark and light, they suffer, and there is no black and white. For much of the story I found myself part believer in the magic and the knowledge that  Nance is a practitioner of, and almost hoping that indeed the little boy would be restored to his undamaged self. Of course, we know the outcome before we begin to read the story, but such is the power of a great writer, to make us suspend disbelief.

Although I found Burial Rites more fascinating because of its setting, I think The Good People is a more confident, mature novel.

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stories of death

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent, published by Picador, September 2013.

This novel  was a best seller before it was even available in print, and international publication rights were sold for a cool $1 million, unheard of for a first novel by an Australian author.  The story of writing it began when Kent went to Iceland at the age of 17 on Rotary exchange, and since then she has returned to Iceland several times, and has done extensive research into the central character, her setting and time (early 19th century).

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Hannah Kent has a blog; here you can watch a video, also on YouTube, which has  a brief reading from the book, accompanied by the haunting theme song from my favourite ever TV crime show, the Danish series The Eagle.  Here are the lyrics; the song was composed for the series (I believe) by  Jacob Groth, and it is sung by his wife, Lisen Groth:

I
I’m a roamer in time
I travel alone
Throughout an endless journey

Home
Where is my home
Fragments of a love life
I won’t surrender

When the spirits are calling my name
Then I will have passed all the sorrow and pain
And I’ll go to heaven with you
I’ll lay down my head on your pillow and ask for forgiveness

This is a totally appropriate introduction to this extraordinary book. First, a caveat; there are spoilers in this review; it’s impossible to talk about it meaningfully without then.

I was compelled to read it because for some years now, I’ve had a fascination with Scandinavia, especially Norway, where my great-grandfather was born, and Iceland. Why Iceland? Perhaps because it is such a tiny island, home to just over 300,00o people, the westernmost European country, on the edge of the Arctic Circle. You can read about its fascinating and troubled history here. In modern times, it is famous for achieving independence from Danish rule in 1944, enjoying a period of prosperity post-war, only to suffer  financial collapse in the 2009 global economic crisis, and for the eruption of a volcano in 2010, which caused havoc with travel across Europe. But I am fascinated by its early modern links with the Vikings; by its culture, which seems to be a mix of extreme modernity in the city and rural simplicity, survival of traditional customs and religious ways of thinking,  and raw, elemental materiality; and by its geography, that of an Arctic desert punctuated by mountains, glaciers, geysers, volcanoes, hot springs and waterfalls.seljalandfosswaterfall

Iceland, in Burial Rites, is seen only in microcosm, on a small, poor rural farm, through the depths of winter, with flashbacks to another rural district where the heroine lived before she is implicated in the brutal murder of a man, and convicted along with another young man and a woman. The other woman’s sentence is commuted to life imprisonment, but Agnes Magnusdottir and the man are sentenced to execution by beheading. Agnes is the second of the two for the chop, and so earns the dubious distinction of being the last person to be executed in Iceland, in 1828. These are factual events; Kent has woven a compelling novel from them, which intertwines Agnes’s first person narrative with a third person narrative. It does this seamlessly. The only exception to this are the extracts from historical documents about the condemned, interspersed throughout the book. I am with the reviewer Sarah Moss, in The Guardian here, who finds these intrusive:

 I wish she had been brave enough to leave out the adapted and translated historical documents and allow Agnes to stand centre stage without anxiously plucking the reader’s sleeve to remind them that the views expressed are not the only possible versions of the story.

Her story unfolds through the device of her gradually telling it to Toti, who is an Assistant Reverend whom Agnes has asked for as her spiritual mentor. He is delegated by the powers that be  to return the condemned woman to the Lord, ‘administer God’s word and inspire repentance and an acknowledgement of justice’. Whereas Agnes just wants someone whom she can trust to tell her story to. The inevitable happens; Toti falls in love with her, but keeps this to himself, and in the end, is able to give her the only possible gift: that of believing in her and being with her at the terrible end. And yes, I did weep, though until the last few pages, I was dry-eyed.

The fascinating theme of the book is the gradual untwisting of the threads which have sewn Agnes into a shroud of vicious criminality, to reveal the true story, as Kent imagines it, of how her love for Natan, the murdered man, entangles her in his own dark, upredictable, conflicted nature, and the jealousies and impulsive actions of the other two condemned. Another interesting sub-theme is the change in the way Agnes is perceived by those around her, as her story unfolds. Toti  is, for much of the story, the only person who not only fully believes in her goodness and lack of criminality, but also the only one endowed with the role of hearing her story. This shifts, as for a time, his illness and the severe winter weather prevent him from visiting her, and she tells some of her story to Margret, wife of the farmer who is assigned to have Agnes stay in their home until her execution (there was no prison in Iceland where she could be held). The farmer and his family are very wary of Agnes at first, and treat her as a criminal, but gradually, this changes, as they see how hard she works, her gift for healing, and get to know her story. Some of this is by osmosis, as the cottage is tiny, with only two rooms, a kitchen/storeroom and a ‘badstofa’ which doubles as living room and bedroom for all, including the servants and any visitors who stay overnight.

To end this rather rambling review, here is a passage from the narrative on Agnes’s last day of life, which illustrates the bone-bright, earthy, visceral prose that makes the landscape and the climate as compelling a character as any of the humans that inhabit it:

Now comes the darkening sky and a cold wind that passes right through you, as though you were not there, it passes through you as though it does not care whether you are alive or dead, for you will be gone and the wind will still be there, licking the grass flat upon the ground, not caring whether the soil is at freeze or thaw, for it will freeze and thaw again, and soon your bones, now hot with blood and thick-juicy with marrow, will be dry and brittle and flake and freeze and thaw with the weight of the dirt upon you, and the last moisture of your body will be drawn up to the surface by the grass, and the wind will come and knock it down and push you back against the rocks, or it will scrape you up under its nails and take you out to sea in a wild screaming of snow.

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What makes a good memoir?

As a memoir writer who is still revising her memoir, I ask myself this quite often, and especially whenever I read a memoir that has the potential to be good but just doesn’t make it for me. One such is The Promise of Iceland, by Kari Gislason, UQP 2011. A friend loaned me this book, which she’d bought, she said, because she knew I have a desire to visit this small, isolated Arctic island nation.

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Before I talk about my responses to this book, I’ll mention a review of four memoirs in the New York Times, by Noel Gezlinger. He refers to memoir as ‘this bloated genre’, and says:

 If you didn’t feel you were discovering something as you wrote your memoir, don’t publish it. Instead hit the delete key, and then go congratulate yourself for having lived a perfectly good, undistinguished life. There’s no shame in that.

He gets stuck into this plague, as he sees it; the worthy memoirists are

… lost in a sea of people you’ve never heard of, writing uninterestingly about the unexceptional, apparently not realizing how commonplace their little wrinkle is or how many other people have already written about it. Memoirs have been disgorged by virtually every­one who has ever had cancer, been anorexic, battled depression, lost weight. By anyone who has ever taught an underprivileged child, adopted an under­privileged child or been an under­privileged child. By anyone who was raised in the ’60s, ’70s or ’80s, not to mention the ’50s, ’40s or ’30s. Owned a dog. Run a marathon. Found religion. Held a job.

However, having something extraordinary to write about need not produce a good memoir, and conversely, nor do I accept that we should only write memoirs if our lives have been extraordinary in some way, or that an ordinary life can not be written in an interesting and engaging way.

Kari Gislason was born to a British mother living in Iceland, who had an affair with a married Icelandic man. Kari’s father made his lover promise never to reveal his identity; this promise was extracted from Kari himself, when he revisited Iceland at the age of 17, in search of his father and his Icelandic identity. This is a recipe for a great story, especially since Iceland is a remote country with an extreme climate, and a culture that has evolved into postmodern urban life, but still retains much of its rural, ancient ways of thinking and behaving, as Gislason and others who have written about it bear witness. It is also the setting for a current phenomenon of the literary world, Burial Rites, by Hannah Kent, a novel about the woman who has the distinction of being Iceland’s last person to be beheaded for murder. (I’ve ordered a copy of this book, which is not released till September, but already it’s a bestseller).

The central theme of Gislason’s memoir is his search for the (lost) remote father, who abandoned him and continues to abandon him by denying the biological and emotional bond. Such searches are rarely requited, and this story is no exception. But in the process, Kari renews his childhood bond with the country and the people, and henceforth, lives a divided life, moving between his adopted home, Brisbane, and his natal home. He falls in love with a Queensland woman, and takes her with him on an extended visit to a remote village in Iceland, where he works as a teacher of English, and she finds work in a sushi factory. They have a baby, and return to Australia; but Kari’s research (a PhD in traditional Icelandic culture) and his passion for Iceland take him back from time to time. Home, for him, is a divided state; it can never be one, whole, unquestioned.

Why am I disappointed by this book? I expected a creation of the world of Iceland, from a semi-outsider’s point of view. This is there, in snatches of description of landscape and scenes of Icelandic life. But the focus is nearly always kept on Kari’s emotional reactions and experiences, told in a way that rarely transcends the personal and grabs the reader, hauling them into the protagonist’s shoes. There are too many details about peripheral characters, his mother’s friend group when she lived there, his father’s other children, whom he finally meets, and his responses to the ups and downs of daily life there. And his other home, Brisbane, is vaguely sketched and does not become a realised ‘other’ home. The mystery and the meaning of this story do not stand out in strong enough relief against the minutiae of the narrator’s experiences.

I’m surprised that this book leaves me with the feeling it needs a strong editor, since Gislason is a lecturer in creative writing. But I know that we are not the best critics of our own writing. The fact the memoir has been published by one of our respected literary publishers does not reassure me about the publishing world. But perhaps other readers think this book IS a good memoir. Have you read it? What do you think makes a good memoir?

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