Monthly Archives: November 2013

Review: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

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Thank to Little, Brown for a review copy.

Thank to Little, Brown for a review copy.

Hannah Kent’s début historical novel is set on the frigid farms of early 19th century Iceland. The courts have convicted Agnes Magnusdottir of murder. To save money, local authorities send her to a minor official’s farm. She works there with the family and awaits execution while a young priest attempts to guide her on the Lord’s path.

Her presence creates a scandal in the cold northern valley. Neighbours flock to the farm. Some are afraid while others are curious. Some hate Agnes while others, like Steina, the farm owner’s daughter, seek to befriend her. Still others, like Margret, the mistress of the house, slowly change their opinion of her in the months leading to her execution.

The priest, a nervous wreck named Toti, finds quoting psalms and lecturing on religion ineffective. It’s clear from the start Agnes isn’t interested in spiritual advice. More importantly, she doesn’t feel she’s done wrong. So instead of sermonizing, Toti lets her tell her story. In this way, the narrative of her life as an abandoned illegitimate child as an itinerant servant is interwoven with her life as a prisoner waiting execution.

Iceland’s last case of capital punishment inspires the novel. Agnes Magnusdottir was a real person, as were her victims, Natan Ketilsson and Petur Jonsson. Ketilsson’s brother beheaded her on behalf of the state in 1830, and curious souls can still visit her grave. Kent, an Australian, has lived in Iceland, and she researched her narrative extensively. Yet the heart of the story — how Agnes felt in her last days — is speculative.

Kent’s writing is easy and evocative. She brings 19th century Iceland — with its houses of dusty sod, its frozen fields, and its rocky shores lined with seals — vividly to life. The social context is also fascinating. Denmark rules over the island, and most farmers rent land from absentee owners. Leaseholders hire farmhands and servants to supplement family labour, giving rise to distinct hierarchies — not to mention seasonal romances and conflicts.

The interesting topic, unusual setting, and pleasant writing make this a very enjoyable novel. Ultimately, however, the story fails to build effectively, and Kent’s skill with prose is not strong enough to make up for the narrative’s shortcomings. Enjoyment felt in reading the books first half slowly gives way to worry, and then boredom, as the climax one awaits never appears.

Burial Rites suffers from the ‘premise problem’ — a frequent malady of début writers. It goes like this. You think of a great premise for a book — ‘The last woman executed in Iceland awaits her death at cold northern farm’ — and then, with little further development, you begin to write.

A premise is not a story. It doesn’t involve narrating change, but describing a situation. And that’s what Burial Rites reads like. A long description.

Agnes changes little throughout the novel. In the ‘Author’s Note,’ Kent states she aimed to paint a complex picture of her. She does this effectively, portraying her as much more than a murderess.

But she does nothing else with her. Agnes simply waits at the farm for her death, and then she dies. She is a helpless protagonist reduced to watching other people act and not acting herself.

Hers is a tragic story worth telling. Yet it doesn’t have the momentum to bear 300 pages of text. Combined with a few bumps in the writing — ‘quickly’ and ‘immediately’ shouldn’t appear on the same line; ‘approach’ shouldn’t be used twice in one sentence — and the book is disappointing.

Of course, this critique is set against the massive marketing machine that has promoted Burial Rites to the far corners of the earth. Go into your local bookstore and you’ll probably see it on the front table. It’s not that the book is bad, just that it doesn’t live up to the hype.

Despite its flaws, Burial Rites remains a solid début from a promising new voice. The narrative could use more drive, and its lead characters more development. Nonetheless, it offers a beautiful portrait of a little-known time and place, and a touching profile of a condemned woman who is more victim than perpetrator.

The Method of Writing: Plan, plan, plan, or “back the fuck off”?

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The literary dawn on the lake of the mind. (Murte Lake, Wells Gray Provincial Park, BC.)

In October The Atlantic ran an awesome interview with Andre Dubus III.

I love Andre Dubus III. He’s got a cool name. He writes cool books (Dirty Love just came out this fall). He swears profusely, even in print, even in a 156-year-old magazine, because, well, he’s that fucking passionate about writing.

And in this interview he suggests all you plotters and planners and outliners really need to just back the fuck off. He’s talking to you, Ms. Writer with your note cards and your plot points and your summaries. These are his words. Back. The. Fuck. Off.

That outline you just did? That idea you had for the climax of your novel, for the clever resolution of the short story you’re going to email to some hip litmag? Throw it the fuck out and sit the fuck down. Then write, and see what comes.

You’re a blind woman, or man, or marsupial. Whatever. You’re feeling your way through a tunnel, and the point is you don’t know where you’re going. All you know is what your senses tell you about what’s right in front of you.

That, Dubus says, is all you need. Take note of whatever is mentally in front of you. You’re the ethnographer of your imagination. You’re wearing twill khaki shorts and the mosquitoes are bleeding you dry, and you’re just scribbling notes about whatever you observe in your immediate dream-surroundings.

You’re not composing a novel or devising a short story. You’re not even a writer. You’re just taking field notes from your subconscious.

So your job is to shut the fuck up. Just be quiet and wait for your subconscious to float an image. Your conscious mind is a security guard/stenographer. It waits for something to happen, then it takes note.

This is what Dubus says. He probably knows what he’s talking about, if The House of Sand and Fog or any of his five other well-regarded books are something to go by.

On this, he echoes the sentiments of other bestselling — though less “literary” — writers like Stephen King, who in his memoir On Writing also said he doesn’t plan. He just sits down and feels it out.

The downside of this approach is you end up having to chuck out prose by the boatload. But Dubus is simply too bad-ass to shed tears over spilt ink.

“I don’t care if I spent a year writing pages 1 through 96. If I feel some real energy on page 93, and I think that should be page 1? Those first 92 pages are fucking gone.”

Thrown in the fucking wastebasket. Ruthlessly recycled. He doesn’t care. He’s Andre Dubus IIIOne day he may wipe his ass with those 92 pages. It just depends if he buys environmentally friendly toilet paper or not.

All you planners out there, stop sucking your teeth while you contemplate the horrifying inefficiency of this approach. There are plenty of upsides we have yet to consider. Allow me to hold forth on them forthwith.

Well right off the bat, you save all the time of plotting and sketching. Plotting days become writing days.

So although you may have to throw more stuff out, you have way more stuff. You are word-rich. You no longer have any excuse not to write every day. You can’t say, “Well, I would write today, but I have to hammer out the twists in my story first.” If Dubus heard you say this he would politely tell you:  stop making excuses, sit the fuck down, and write.

It’s very passionate advice. The main question, though, is about quality. Because better quality is a potential upside here, though obviously not all high-quality writers approach their work this way.

Yet Dubus suggests  if you don’t write like this, your book or story or epic poem is going to sound contrived. It’ll come off as gimmicky, inorganic. You’ve got to let it develop naturally or it won’t have an authentic ring. The soul of art is born of uncertainty, he would claim.

It’s hard to settle this. We need some scientists in white coats to see which writers work like Dubus and King, and which ones plan out their writing in advance. Then they can get a bunch of participants to rate the work each group produces. Barring that, it’s just an assertion made in really fucking strong language.

I’ve tried both approaches, and I don’t know which is better. Planning in advance provides a lot of comfort as you move through the writing process. But maybe comfort isn’t really what you want as a writer. I must admit it does raise questions in the back of my mind about sounding contrived.

Proceeding with no plan, however, often seems to produce work that doesn’t go anywhere. Work I couldn’t imagine people want to read because it doesn’t present itself as a clear story. But I do find this work tends to be raw and engaging. Maybe I’ve just never given this freewheeling process enough time.

The point Dubus seems to make is that even your output is a colossal mess, eventually you’ll be able to tie pieces of it together into a coherent structure. The trick is to keep going, to write continuously so that you have enough raw material. So that you don’t care if you have to scrap pages 1-92.

I’d say that’s a tall order. But it’s also a brave way to work. And if Dubus’s books are anything to go by, it’s something worth going after.