Tag Archives: literature

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.

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Review: And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini

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Thanks to Penguin for a review copy of Khaled Hosseini's 'And the Mountains Echoed.'

Thanks to Penguin for a review copy of Khaled Hosseini’s ‘And the Mountains Echoed.’

In some ways And the Mountains Echoed reflects Khaled Hosseini’s previous novels. Like The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, it’s set in Afghanistan — though not exclusively. Like them its title draws from a poem. And like them it’s an earnest, sentimental work that seeks to educate.

But in other respects it’s different. And the Mountains Echoed is of far broader scope than Hosseini’s earlier work. It features a bevy of characters and a slew of plot lines. It moves from Afghanistan to Athens to California to Paris and back. It’s not just about Afghans but those who’ve been drawn to their country since the Taliban’s fall: surgeons, nurses, and aid workers.

The themes it touches on are many. Property theft spawned by the refugee crisis. Pain caused by Afghans settled in the West who come to Kabul and make promises they can’t keep. The rebirth of mujahideen leaders as opium lords. Homosexuality and women’s rights in Amanullah Khan’s reformist era. Domestic violence. The current medical crisis. The heroism of foreign doctors who devote their lives to Afghans. The trauma of fractured families. The question of filial duty. The quest for meaning, and the fear of freedom to search for it.

These are weighty ideas, each worth considering. But there are too many of them.

I laud Hosseini’s intentions. He clearly has much to say about his home country. Sometimes, however, less is more.

The virtues of a sharp focus were manifest in his earlier novels. The Kite Runner was about a man searching for his childhood friend. A Thousand Splendid Suns was about two generations of women who suffered through war and patriarchy. And the Mountains Echoed, however, is harder to sum up.

But here’s an attempt. In the 1950s an Afghan peasant, Saboor, is persuaded to give up his baby daughter, Pari, to a wealthy family, the Wahdatis. Pari winds up in France, unaware of her true origins, while her brother, Abdullah, suffers trauma from the separation. Abdullah eventually immigrates to California and runs a kabob house. The siblings aren’t reunited until half a century later when Abdullah’s mind has been ravaged by senility.

A Greek plastic surgeon, Markos Varvaris, comes to Kabul on a short stint in 2002 and decides to settle there after years of globetrotting. He is offered accommodation in the house of the Wahdatis– though the family is dead and only the servant who arranged the adoption, Nabi, remains. A couple of California-based Afghans, Idris and Tabur, go to Kabul to claim the property their father abandoned years before, and they bump into the Varvaris and Nabi. It turns out they lived on the same street as Nabi in their youth.

When Nabi dies he requests Varvaris to find Pari, reveal her true origins, and give her the house he left her in his will. Varvaris finds her online and unveils the truth of her birth family. This allows her to eventually track down her brother in California.

If the story’s ultimate direction isn’t jumping out, that’s because it doesn’t in the book. There’s plenty to like in the novel, though. Hosseini draws beautiful portraits of his characters. Some — like the servant Nabi and the troubled poet Nila Wahdati — are memorable. But the book explores so many characters in such depth that the narrative grows muddled. For example, Varvaris’s main role in the story is to find Pari and reveal her family roots. Yet there’s a sixty-five-page chapter devoted to his childhood in the Greek Isles.

And it’s a great chapter — one of the best. But it doesn’t advance the core narrative. Instead it exemplifies how the book covers too much ground: its true aim is humanizing the foreign medical volunteers in Afghanistan.

That’s a great thing to do, and Hosseini has drawn great characters in Varvaris, his resolute mother, and his maimed cousin. But they barely connect to the rest of the novel. The result is a book that reads more as a series of snapshots of contemporary Afghanistan and not as a cogent story.

The same goes for a forty-page chapter on California brothers Idris and Timur who visit Kabul in 2003 to reclaim their father’s house. The only connection this pair have to the main story is that as children they lived on the same street as the Wahdatis. Their presence doesn’t further the plot at all. Rather they allow Hosseini to explore cultural insensitivity on the part of Westernized Afghans and to raise the plight of injured children. Again, these are important topics. But story-wise this is another dead-end.

Khaled Hosseini’s strength has always been narrative. His prose is adequate. But he is known for great stories, not great sentences. And in the absence of a story that’s lucid and driven, And the Mountains Echoed sags.

A short story collection would’ve better suited Hosseini’s purposes. With a number of subplots barely touching on the novel’s core, it almost reads like one already.

Style No. 43: Ghostly

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I never asked for any of this. I was simply minding my own business, out for a walk. There was a great crush of people agitating down the road, and I thought I’d have a look. But nothing could’ve prepared me for what I saw in the end.

At first I felt a rush of wind. A cool air blowing down my back. The weather was sticky-hot, so it shocked me. I turned around, but there was nothing, no one. So I turned back. Then it happened again.

This time, I spun quickly and caught a glimpse of something strange. A shimmering light, an orange heat wave. And a sound — a haunting noise, difficult to place. Like a vacant, low whistling.

My first impression was that the play of bending light looked like two boys arm in arm. But I didn’t have time to double-check because someone crashed into me, and I flew face-first to the pavement. When I turned up my bloodied nose to see who’d knocked me down, there was no one. Only that chill wind again.

Gripped with fear of unknown spirits bent on tormenting me, I sprung to my feet and ran. But I didn’t get ten feet before smacking into an old woman with a strange object tucked beneath her headshawl. “I’m so sorry, ma’am,” I stammered, glancing left and right to see who’d witnessed this embarrassing spectacle. Luckily, there was no one. Just a solitary man looking knowingly the other way.

After the ghostly incident I was in need of repose and took crosslegged to a beachside log. (Kerala, India, 2011).

After the ghostly incident I was in need of repose and took crosslegged to a beachside log. (Kerala, India, 2011).

Style No. 41: Zombie

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A young boy in a zombie-repellent orange t-shirt blows pensively on what looks like a whistle. But it’s actually a small frag bomb, which he hurls into the crowd of raging undead milling in the distance, dismembering a half-dozen groaning zombies and one undead cow. His friend clings to him for dear life and observes the hungry crowd in the distance as the exploded flesh of the zombies is blown across the whole decaying congregation.

Meanwhile, a nervous grandmother approaches from behind with something strange concealed under her headscarf. “Are you alright, madam?” asks the boy. To this, she growls maniacally like a tortured wolf, menacing them with her gangrened hands and wretched yellow nails. Just then the headscarf falls to the ground, revealing her swollen zombie brain pulsing up from her open skull.

“Run!” shouts the boy. But it is too late. They cannot go forward, lest they become appetizers at a zombie picnic. And they can’t turn back, for she is upon them.

Suddenly a strange man who’d been looking knowingly the other way bursts onto the scene and withdraws a glistening scimitar. “This zombie grandma’s getting ahead of herself,” he says. Then he raises his wide blade to the sky, and with one deft motion cleaves her undead body at the neck. Her rotting head rolls down the gentle slope of the street and into the crowd, where it’s ravaged by a hungry pack of rancid corpses.

This is an example of a being who would maintain a cool head in the event of a Zompocalypse. We could all learn something from him.

This is an example of a being who would maintain a cool head in the event of a Zompocalypse. We could all stand to learn something from him.

Style No. 37: Bombastic

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Style No. 37: Bombastic

A boy as young as a bubble cast from the froth of a stormy sea blows into his whistle like the harmattan blasting over the Sahara in the bleary days of August. He is plunged into the ocean of his own thoughts like a nuclear submarine scraping the darkness of the sea floor. His supreme companion holds him in the trap of his arm like a hunter of affection laying snares for the bear of boyhood friendship, while gazing upon the masses in the distance roiling like soup pot of an aged grandmother.

At that time a grandmother as wrinkled as a desert date mummified in the tomb of a pharaoh for millennia appeared and swept past them like an incontinent ballerina, her nervousness spilling from her like the waters of a bursting dam. Beneath the shawl on her head she guarded an object as though she were a ninja hiding squid ink at midnight. Meanwhile, behind them a man as sombre as the funeral of a thousand puppies looked the other way with eyes as knowing as an orgy of the sages.

A man as old as time enswirled as if by the succulent meringues of a thousand eggs hobbles toward his home as green as all the world’s pistachio ice cream had been unctuously massaged into its slate-flat walls by the impetuous gods of nuts and dairy. Clicked this in Jew Town, Kochi, Kerala (India) in 2011.

Hey everybody — thanks for reading 🙂

Style No. 36: So

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Style No. 36: So

So I’m watching this little guy. He’s got this whistle, so he’s blowing it. Seems like an interesting kid, so I take note of his apparel — it’s an orange t-shirt, so I’m thinking he must be outgoing. So I take a closer look at his expression, and I see he’s completely sucked into his own mental vortex, a real introvert, yet with a flair for ostentatious garments. So I realize he’s something of a complicated youth.

So then I discern a foreign limb draped over him, so I follow its contour and find it attached to a second boy. So I size him up, and find that he’s looking off in the distance. So I spin around to see what’s caught his eye. So that’s how I noticed the gaggle of folks milling about over there.

So, as I wonder how I missed that in the first place, this old grandmother passes by. It’s not remarkable in itself, but it catches my eye. So I ask myself — what gives? So then I see she’s hiding something. So as she moves by I try to figure out what it is, but all I can see is she’s got something jammed up under the shawl on her head. So eventually I give up and turn my attention to the serious man behind the kids. He comes off as quite a character, as a real no-nonsense guy, so I try to make eye contact. I’m thinking: maybe he and I’ll be friends, maybe we’ll share a cup of tea — so I’m staring rather vigorously. So that’s when I notice he’s looking knowingly the other way. So I realized then the friendship was impossible and that I was condemned to solitude. So I resolved then and there to buy a waffle and forget the whole episode.

So, you should go to Belgium so you can survive on a diet of pure waffle. Clicked this in Brussels, 2011.

So that’s my latest post. So you should go eat a waffle and gratuitously rattle off some two-letter conjunctions. So thanks for reading 🙂