Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Hannah Kent, historical fiction, Iceland, literary fiction, Picador, Publisher, Setting

‘Burial Rites’ by Hannah Kent

Burial-rites

Fiction – hardcover; Picador; 378 pages; 2013. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

I may possibly be the last person in the world to read Hannah Kent’s extraordinary debut novel, Burial Rites, which has been lauded far and wide and nominated for almost every prize going since publication last year.

It is one of those rare Australian novels that has achieved international acclaim — and with good reason. This is a universal tale of what it is like to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, with no recourse to proper justice, and it tells the story in such a frank and interesting way that it is difficult to put down. I read it in a matter of days.

A fictionalised true story

Set in Iceland in 1829, the book is based on a true story, as the author explains in her note at the end: “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.” Interspersed with real letters and court documents, the narrative fictionalises the events leading up to the murders and beyond.

When the book opens we meet Agnes almost a year after she has been sentenced to death by beheading.  She has been sent to the north to work her final months on a farm owned by the District Officer, his wife Magrét and two daughters, Lauga and Steina, all of whom regard her with suspicion and distrust.

Allowed access to a spiritual adviser to prepare her for “her meeting with Our Lord”, she requests that Assistant Reverend Thorvardur Jónsson, a young priest she met in passing years earlier, take on this role. But it is a task he is ill-equipped to handle.

Kent sets up her story nicely with a triumvirate of characters —  a convicted killer, a family that doesn’t trust her, and a man of religion — but what happens next isn’t really what you might expect.

During her time on the farm, Agnes changes: she grows in confidence, is less fearful of the future and begins to remember incidents from her past, which are told flashback style (in the first person). But she also has a profound effect on the people with whom she must now live and work among — they begin to see her in a new light, particularly when she tentatively opens up and tells her sometimes shocking, always surprising version of events.

Effortless read

What I loved most about Kent’s story is the effortless way it is told. Her prose style is clean and compelling, although the language — particularly the idioms and some of the dialogue — does occasionally feel too contemporary for the 19th century.

But the way in which the narrative builds and switches between third person (for the District Officer’s family and the reverend) and first person (for Agnes) is one of the book’s great strengths. Not only does it build momentum and provide insights into all of the characters thoughts, it gives the author an effective vehicle for dramatising what happened on the fateful night through the eyes of the person charged with the crime.

Perhaps the only real problem I had with this novel (and I suspect this is unique to me) is that I felt like I’d read it all before — it did not feel as fresh or as original as other reviewers have stated. But I suspect that’s because I’ve spent the best part of 10 years working my way through Arnuldur Indridason’s Reykjavik series. While his novels are set in Iceland in contemporary times, many of them focus on historical crimes, and they’re not dissimilar to Agnes’ situation.

That said Burial Rites is a great read — a proper page-turner with believable characters, a compelling plot that is deftly handled, and a narrative that “zips along” (as a 2011 Booker judge might want to say). It is an incredibly assured debut and it will be interesting to see what Kent comes up with next because for sheer audaciousness — and attention grabbing marketability — this one is going to be hard to top.

Arnaldur Indriðason, Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Harvill Secker, Iceland, Publisher, Setting

‘Strange Shores’ by Arnaldur Indriðason

Strange-shores

Fiction – hardcover; Harvill Secker; 304 pages; 2013. Translated from the Icelandic. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Strange Shores is billed as the last in Arnuldur Indridason’s long-running Reykjavik series, a series which I’ve loved following ever since I discovered it in 2006 (you can read all my reviews here).

I had mixed feelings about reading this book: I couldn’t wait to see what happened to Detective Erlunder (he’s been “on leave” in the last two books in the series), but at the same time I didn’t want to read it because that would mean I had no more left to enjoy. In the end, I couldn’t resist…


Two missing person cases

As with many of Indriðason’s novels, this one has two narrative threads, each one looking at a missing person case from the past.

The first focuses on Matthildur, a fisherman’s wife, who disappeared in a notorious blizzard in 1942, never to be seen again, and the second looks at Detective Erlunder’s own brother, Beggi, who was lost in a similar blizzard when he was eight years old, a tragedy which has left deep emotional scars on the policeman. (While you could easily read Strange Shores without having read any of the previous titles in the series, those who have followed Erlunder’s journey from the start will find this aspect especially fascinating.)

The book feels like a police procedural as Erlunder painstakingly examines what happened to Matthildur under the guise of doing historical research; it is not an official police investigation. This is just as well, because what he discovers threatens to destroy an elderly man’s life and much of it is hard to prove. As he goes about piecing together the jigsaw of Matthildur’s case, Erlunder looks for clues related to his own missing brother, which results in two deftly woven storylines.

Slightly clunky structure

But the structure of the book poses a dilemma for the writer: how to explain incidents from the past when Erlunder is looking for evidence in the present? Indriðason solves this by having Matthildur’s story recalled by a character who remembers her well, but his account is not written in conversational dialogue, as per a police interview, as one might expect, but by an omnipresent narrator — I’m not sure I liked this approach, which felt slightly clunky and at odds with the rest of the book’s third-person style.

That said, once the book gets going it is a fascinating story and the resolution of Mattildur’s disappearance feels authentic and believable. Readers who like retribution in their crime novels may find Erlunder’s balanced, free-from-judgemental approach difficult to comprehend, but to me this was one of the most appealing aspects of the novel.

Of course, when you come to the final book in a long-running series, you want to know what happens to the central character. Erlunder has never been a happy man. He has investigated some pretty horrible crimes, experienced distressing fallout from his failed marriage, seen his adult daughter succumb to drug addiction and watched his son struggle to find his place in the world. And all the while he has been obsessed (and psychologically damaged) by the death of his younger brother when he was a youngster. Would he find happiness at last in this final novel?

I’m not going to give that away, but let me say that the ending is beautifully ambiguous, because it’s not clear if the event in which “he takes Bergur’s hand in his and together they walk along the river into the bright morning” is meant to be a dream or not. I couldn’t think of a more perfect way to say goodbye to one of my favourite fictional characters…

Arnaldur Indriðason, Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Harvill Secker, Iceland, Publisher, Setting

‘Black Skies’ by Arnaldur Indriðason

Black_skies

Fiction – paperback; Harvill Secker; 330 pages; 2012. Translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Arnaldur Indriðason’s Black Skies, the latest of his work to be translated into English, was first published in his native Iceland in 2008. The time frame is important, because the story is set shortly before the global financial crisis of September 2008 in which Iceland fared so very badly. I’m not sure whether the author wrote the book in the immediate aftermath, or whether he was just incredibly prescient, but the story makes constant reference to people living beyond their means. The main villains also happen to be bankers.

Sigurdur Óli takes centre stage

What is perhaps more interesting is that Black Skies covers the same time period as his last novel, Outrage, so that the crime being investigated in that novel is mentioned in passing in this one. And, just as in Outrage, the morose detective Erlunder —  the usual star of this Reykjavik Murder Mysteries Series — is still on a leave of absence. That gives the series’ other main detective, Sigurdur Óli, the chance to take centre stage.

Admittedly, Sigurdur Óli is my least favourite character in previous novels I have read — he’s too opinionated, lacks attention to detail, goes at things like a bull in a china shop. But it is a credit to Indriðason’s skill as a novelist that he makes him more rounded, more human, more empathetic in this story. We get to find out more about his background and his upbringing, and in doing so we learn not just of his weaknesses, but his strengths too.

When the story opens, he is attending a high school reunion, which makes him question his decision to remain in the police force. All his friends are making money, taking advantage of Iceland’s economic boom, while he’s dealing with the country’s low-lifes. His depressive outlook isn’t helped by the fact that his long-term relationship with Bergthóra has finally crumbled because of their inability to have children and his hard-working father has just been diagnosed with prostrate cancer.

Drawn into an investigation by accident

But Sigurdur Óli has a particular weakness. When people ask for a favour, he cannot say no. He spends hours on a tedious and trivial (and from this reader’s point of view, hiliarious) stakeout, trying to track down a newspaper thief on behalf of his mother’s friend. And when an old classmate from high school asks him to warn off a pair of blackmailers, he does so — in an unofficial capacity, thereby putting his career on the line in the process — only to find himself drawn into a mysterious murder investigation involving wife-swapping and incriminating photographs showing illicit sex.

Meanwhile, in a dual narrative, a local middle-aged drunk wreaks revenge on the now elderly step father who destroyed his childhood. He leaves Sigurdur Óli a package containing a mysterious strip of film, which is 12 seconds long, as a tip-off.

These two disparate crimes come together in a most unexpected — and satisfying — way at the very end of this superb police procedural about greed, depravity and murder.

As ever, Indriðason is not afraid to depict the grotty underbelly of Icelandic life in an unsentimental, almost cold and detached, way. Yet he writes with such skill and diplomacy that it’s hard not to come away from his work feeling more empathetic and more compassionate towards one’s fellow human beings. Despite being books about death, there’s something truly life-affirming about Indriðason’s work.

Note, this is the eighth novel in the Reykjavik Murder Mysteries Series, but you don’t need to have read any of the previous titles to appreciate this one — it reads pretty much as a standalone.