Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Burial Rites Based on a true story, Burial Rites is a fictional account of the final weeks in the life of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last woman to be executed in Iceland.

It’s 1829 and Agnes – along with two other people – has been found guilty of murdering her lover, Natan Ketilsson. Due to the lack of prisons in the north of Iceland, Agnes has been sent to the farm of District Officer Jón Jónsson where she will await the day of her beheading. Understandably, Jón’s wife and daughters are nervous and angry about having a convicted murderer coming to stay with them, but as they have no choice in the matter they must find a way to deal with their fear and distrust.

Agnes is visited at the farm by Assistant Reverend Thorvárdur Jónsson (known as Tóti), the young priest she has chosen to act as her confidant and spiritual adviser. At first Tóti is surprised to have been given this task and isn’t sure how he can help Agnes, but he soon discovers that all she needs is someone to talk to about her past and about the events leading up to the night of the murder. As Tóti and the Jónsson family listen, the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir begins to unfold.

It seemed that everyone was reading Burial Rites a while ago, especially when it was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction earlier in the year. Despite the good reviews, it was not a book that sounded very appealing to me and I wasn’t planning to read it, but when I noticed it in the library I thought I would give it a try. Now that I’ve read it, I can understand why it has been so successful – it’s beautifully written, the setting is stunning and the atmosphere is haunting – and I did enjoy it, though maybe not as much as other people have.

I loved the Icelandic setting. This is not a story that would have worked had it been set in any other time or place. Nineteenth century Iceland, its landscape, its weather and its small rural communities are as important to the novel as the characters and the plot. The author does a great job of portraying both the isolation of farms and crofts such as Jón Jónsson’s at Kornsá or Natan’s at Illugastadir and the claustrophobia of daily life (entire families lived and slept in one room, known as the badstofa). The book includes extras such as a map and pronunciation guide for readers who, like me, know very little about Iceland.

While Agnes tells part of her story herself in first person, other sections of the novel are told from other perspectives and these are important in helping us to understand the perceptions people have of Agnes. It’s not surprising that Jón’s wife, Margrét, and daughters, Steina and Lauga, react with fear and suspicion at first, but as they learn more about Agnes they begin to adjust the way they think about her. Tóti’s feelings also change over the course of the novel, and so does the reader’s: at the beginning of the book we know nothing about Agnes and have no idea whether she is really guilty or not; by the end, we are left with a sense of sadness and injustice, especially on learning that the other woman accused of the murder (who happens to be younger and prettier) is given the opportunity to appeal while Agnes isn’t.

Of course, the account the fictional Agnes gives of her life and the circumstances of Natan’s murder is not necessarily what happened in real life and we don’t know whether Iceland’s last execution really was a miscarriage of justice or not. Burial Rites is a combination of fact and fiction, the result of both careful research and the author’s imagination. I thought it was interesting that in her author’s note, Hannah Kent says that she doesn’t think of Agnes Magnúsdóttir as a feminist heroine or even a heroine at all; just a ‘human who does not want to die, and no more’. But whatever else Agnes was, she was a character I cared about and I’m pleased to have had the chance to read her story.

The Misbegotten by Katherine Webb

The Misbegotten I really enjoyed The Misbegotten; I don’t normally choose books depending on the season (unless for a specific event such as the R.I.P. challenge) but this was a perfect October book! A big, thick novel with an atmospheric nineteenth century setting, a dark and gothic feel, and a mystery at its heart: ideal for this time of year.

In 1803, a little girl known only as Starling is found wandering in the marshes and is taken in by Alice Beckwith, a loving, kind-hearted young woman with a mysterious past of her own. Having grown up with only an elderly servant for company – except for the occasional visit from her guardian, Lord Faukes, and his grandson, Jonathan Alleyn – Alice is delighted to have Starling living with them and they soon come to think of each other as sisters. The only threat to their relationship, as far as Starling is concerned, is Alice’s love for Jonathan.

In 1821, we meet Starling again, now working as a maid in the household of Jonathan Alleyn, who has been left mentally disturbed after returning from the Peninsular War. We learn that Alice disappeared several years earlier and that Starling believes Jonathan may have killed her.

Into the Alleyn home comes another young woman, Rachel Crofton, who has recently left her position as a governess to marry the wine merchant Richard Weekes. Married life isn’t quite what Rachel had hoped it would be and when Jonathan’s mother asks her to become a companion to her reclusive son, Rachel agrees. Soon she finds herself spending more and more time at the Alleyns’ house and as she gets to know both Jonathan and Starling better, she becomes determined to uncover the truth behind Alice’s disappearance.

The Misbegotten is a story of secrets: secrets between family members, between husbands and wives, between parents and children, between friends. As the story unfolds, we see the consequences of these secrets and how they lead to lies, to devastating tragedies and to the destruction of relationships. The suspense builds as Rachel and Starling come closer to discovering what really happened to Alice and the plot takes some unexpected twists and turns. I was reminded of one of my favourite Victorian authors, Wilkie Collins, whose novels also include similar elements – and I was also reminded of Jane Austen, because most of the action takes place in the city of Bath.

The characters are interesting and well developed and I found that I cared about them all. I cared about Rachel, trapped in an unhappy marriage and doing all she can to help another unhappy family. I cared about the gentle, loving Alice who had vanished without trace. I cared about Jonathan, struggling to cope with his wartime experiences and the loss of the woman he claims to have loved. And I cared about Starling, who is not at all easy to like but who is doing what she believes is right.

This is a long and complex novel and sometimes there are details, subplots or conversations that seem irrelevant – but as the various threads of the story come together we find that everything that happens is significant after all. The only time I began to get impatient was towards the end, when there are some lengthy passages describing Jonathan’s adventures in the Peninsular War. Although these are very well written (and again, very relevant) I was so caught up in the main plot by that point that I resented being pulled away from it even for a few pages!

This is the first Katherine Webb book I’ve read, but based on this one she seems to be just the sort of author I love. I’m sure I’ll be reading more!

Wolves in Winter by Lisa Hilton

Wolves in Winter Beginning in 1492, Wolves in Winter is the story of Mura Benito, the young daughter of a bookseller from Toledo. Even at the age of five, Mura knows she is not like other children. With her mixture of Moorish blood (from her father) and Nordic blood (from her mother) and her pale, androgynous appearance, she has always looked different. She has also grown up listening to her father read to her from his books and possesses a wealth of arcane knowledge which would be unknown to most little girls.

When Mura’s father is arrested by the Inquisition, he leaves his daughter in the care of his friend, Adara, but Mura is eventually sold into slavery and finds herself taken to Florence where she becomes a maid in the household of Piero de’ Medici. Here she continues her education under the eye of the great scholar Marsilio Ficino, learns the arts of healing and fortune telling with the help of the wise woman Margherita, and makes a special friend called Cecco who shows her the sights of Florence. However, Mura’s life is soon to undergo another big change: the downfall of the Medici, the rise to power of the monk Savonarola and the threat of war with the French mean that these are uncertain times in Florence. Fate will take Mura next to Forli and the home of the Countess Caterina Sforza, known as the Lioness of the Romagna.

I picked up Wolves in Winter while browsing the shelves in the library and was intrigued by the promise on the cover of “poison, alchemy and intrigue in the court of the Medici”. I had never heard of either the book or the author but thought I would take it home and give it a try. I did enjoy some aspects of the novel – it’s an entertaining, imaginative story set against a fascinating historical backdrop – but it wasn’t as good as it could have been or as I’d hoped it might be. The positives first: I loved the atmosphere and the richness of Lisa Hilton’s writing (I particularly liked the way she used colour in her descriptions) and the various settings were vividly described. In 350 pages we move from a Spanish bookshop to a Florentine palazzo, from the camp of a travelling circus troupe to a castle under siege!

It was the fictional story of Mura that I had a few problems with. First, she narrates in the first person and although she does age over the course of the novel, she never feels significantly different from the child she is at the beginning. Then there are the supernatural elements of the book – for example, Mura believes she has the ability to communicate with wolves and that she has the gift of the Sight. I just don’t feel that this added very much to the story. Renaissance Italy is always an interesting setting anyway and you would expect any novel featuring both the Medici and the Borgias to be full of intrigue and drama. Add Caterina Sforza, a fascinating character (and one I haven’t read about until now), and there should already have been enough material here to tell a compelling story without the addition of the ‘magical’ elements.

Mura herself is an unusual heroine; I liked her, but I think her strangeness made her a difficult character to fully engage with. I did appreciate, though, that Lisa Hilton was trying to do something a bit different here and that this was not supposed to be your average heroine or your average historical novel! Another way in which Mura’s story is unusual is that it doesn’t involve a lot of romance – she does have a romantic interest but it only forms one small part of the novel. There’s a good reason for this, which I won’t explain here but which will be revealed if you read the book.

Wolves in Winter was an enjoyable, easy read but it lacked the sort of depth I prefer in historical fiction. This edition of the book includes a preview of the author’s next novel, The Stolen Queen, which is about Isabelle of Angoulême. It looks promising but I’m not sure I’ll be reading any more by this author.

Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth

Bitter Greens Since reading Kate Forsyth’s Brothers Grimm-inspired The Wild Girl last year, I have been looking forward to Bitter Greens, another novel with a Grimm connection. I’m sure most of us know, or have at least heard of, the fairy tale Rapunzel. Although this fairy tale was included in the Grimm Brothers’ 1812 collection, Children’s and Household Tales, it was actually based on a much earlier story, Persinette, which was published in 1698 and written by a woman called Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de La Force. In Bitter Greens, Kate Forsyth combines a re-telling of the Rapunzel story with a fascinating account of the life of Charlotte-Rose.

The novel begins in 1697, on the day that Charlotte-Rose is banished from the court of Louis XIV and sent to a convent. With her sharp tongue, sense of humour and spirited personality, it seems that Charlotte-Rose has been the cause of too much scandal for the Sun King’s liking and is now receiving her punishment. After the lively and opulent court of Versailles, Charlotte-Rose finds it very difficult to adapt to life in a strict and austere nunnery. The only thing that makes her days bearable is her friendship with one of the nuns, Soeur Seraphina, who entertains her with a story about a little Italian girl called Margherita…

Accused of stealing a handful of bitter greens from a witch’s garden, Margherita’s parents are forced to make a bargain with the witch: she will not report them for the theft if they agree to hand over their daughter as soon as she reaches the age of seven. And so Margherita finds herself taken from her parents and locked in a high tower by Lake Garda – a tower which can only be accessed when Margherita throws her long red hair from the window to form a ladder.

Margherita’s story unfolds slowly, a few chapters at a time, and alternates with the story of Charlotte-Rose who is looking back on her life, her love affairs and her time at court. There is also a third strand to the novel and in this we learn the history of Selena Leonelli, the witch of the fairy tale, who was once a Venetian courtesan known as ‘La Strega Bella’ and a model for the artist Titian. These three women lead lives which are in some ways very different but in others quite similar. Each has been touched by sadness and tragedy, but each woman proves herself to be strong and resilient in the end.

There’s just so much packed into this novel: the scandals and intrigues of the 17th century French court, a version of Rapunzel much darker and more compelling than the one I remember from my childhood, a vivid depiction of Renaissance Italy, magic and witchcraft, religious persecution, stories within stories, and much more. I was never bored, no matter which of the three women I was reading about. Charlotte-Rose is a wonderful character and I’m surprised that more authors of historical fiction haven’t used her as a subject for their novels. This is the first time I’ve had the pleasure of reading about her and I think it’s sad that she seems to have been largely forgotten by history.

Much as I loved Charlotte-Rose, though, I always found myself looking forward to returning to Margherita in her tower. She and Selena never felt quite as real to me as Charlotte-Rose did (which is maybe not surprising as they are supposed to be fairy tale characters, after all!) but I really enjoyed revisiting the Rapunzel story, which I hadn’t read or even thought about for such a long time. There were elements of fantasy and magical realism within Margherita’s tale that worked well alongside the more realistic narrative of Charlotte-Rose and I thought the balance was perfect. I loved Bitter Greens and would highly recommend both this book and The Wild Girl.

Bitter Greens_Blog Tour Banner_FINALv2 I read Bitter Greens as part of the Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tour. For more reviews, interviews and guest posts please see the tour schedule.

The Sunrise by Victoria Hislop

The Sunrise This is Victoria Hislop’s fourth novel but the first one I’ve read. She has previously written about the Greek leper colony on the island of Spinalonga (The Island), the Spanish Civil War (The Return), and the history of the Greek city of Thessaloniki (The Thread), all of which sound interesting to me as I know nothing about any of those subjects! Like the three books I’ve just mentioned, in The Sunrise, Hislop takes a time and place that many people, including myself, will be unfamiliar with and weaves a story around it.

In the summer of 1972, the city of Famagusta in Cyprus is a thriving holiday resort, one of the most popular tourist destinations in the Mediterranean. The beach is lined with luxury hotels, the most luxurious and expensive of them all being The Sunrise, which has just opened its doors for the first time. For the hotel’s owner, Savvas Papacosta, these are exciting times; his dream of becoming the most successful hotelier in Famagusta is moving one step closer to reality.

Within two years, everything changes. Unknown to the tourists as they enjoy the sun, sea and sand, a Greek military coup has led to Turkey invading the northern part of the island to protect the Turkish Cypriots. When the army approaches Famagusta, frightened guests evacuate the hotels and people flee their homes, among them Savvas and his glamorous wife, Aphroditi. But as Turkish soldiers surround the abandoned city, two families remain hidden inside their apartments. One family, the Georgious, are Greek Cypriots, and the other, the Özkans, are Turkish Cypriots. We follow the stories of both of these families, as well as the Papacostas, and see how each character copes with what has happened to their city.

I did enjoy The Sunrise but I thought it felt a bit uneven; not much happened in the first half of the book and a lot of time was spent introducing the characters, setting the scene and describing the interior of the new hotel. With hindsight, I can see that maybe this was necessary, so that we could appreciate the extent to which the lives of these characters were disrupted and destroyed by the coming conflict, but I still found myself getting impatient and wanting to get into the story! I loved the second half of the novel, though. The descriptions of the abandoned city – houses with beds still unmade and food still on the tables, waiting in vain for their owners to return – are extremely vivid and there are images from the book that have stayed in my mind several days after finishing it.

I didn’t particularly like any of the characters in the story but I thought they were an interesting selection of people and I could certainly sympathise with the situations in which they found themselves. While there are one or two characters in the novel who are motivated by greed and self-interest, it was good to see people of different backgrounds and political beliefs working together, overcoming their differences and discovering that their ‘enemies’ are human beings just like themselves.

Towards the end of the book there are too many coincidences and things are wrapped up too neatly for my liking, but overall I found The Sunrise a fascinating read. I have never been to Cyprus and as I said at the start of this post, I know very little about its history (apart from the 15th century civil war, which I read about in Dorothy Dunnett’s Race of Scorpions) so I’m pleased to have had an opportunity to learn about Famagusta’s tragic past. What makes the story even more poignant is that the district of Varosha, where The Sunrise is set, remains a ghost town even today, untouched and uninhabited for four decades.

Thanks to Bookbridgr for my copy of The Sunrise.

The Daughters of Mars by Thomas Keneally

The Daughters of Mars Until I picked up The Daughters of Mars in the library I was only really aware of Thomas Keneally as the author of Schindler’s Ark (which I haven’t read), the book on which the film Schindler’s List was based. I was surprised to find that he has written more than forty other books (both fiction and non-fiction) and I’m pleased that I’ve finally read one. The Daughters of Mars is the story of two Australian sisters, Naomi and Sally Durance, who serve as nurses with the Australian Army Nursing Service during the First World War. I had a few problems with the book, mainly due to the unusual writing style, but it gave me lots of fascinating insights into the challenges facing wartime nurses.

When we first meet the Durance sisters, they are leading very different lives: Naomi has left home and has gone to work at a hospital in Sydney, while Sally has remained on the family dairy farm in the Macleay Valley and is caring for their sick mother. The two girls have little in common other than a love of nursing but an unwelcome bond is formed between them when their mother dies under tragic circumstances. Deciding to get away for a while from Australia and the memories it holds, they enlist on the hospital ship Archimedes. Sailing first to Egypt and then to the Dardanelles, the sisters are kept busy treating casualties of the Gallipoli Campaign and as the war progresses, they find themselves in separate hospitals on the Western Front where they face the horrors of trench warfare and gas attacks.

The work is demanding, dangerous and emotionally draining, but also very rewarding. As well as learning new skills, both girls find new friends among the other young nurses and meet the men they hope to spend the rest of their lives with. Of course, nothing is certain in times of war and there’s no guarantee that either they or the men they love will survive long enough for marriage to become a possibility. And the most important relationship of all – the one between Naomi and Sally – will remain tense and strained until the sisters can find a way to put the past behind them.

I can’t say that I particularly enjoyed reading The Daughters of Mars, but I did find it interesting to learn about the work of the Australian nurses, which is something I haven’t read about before. Most of what we hear about the Great War involves stories of men fighting on the front lines, but it’s important to remember the important contribution of these brave women who also played their part in helping the war effort. While I have read British author Vera Brittain’s first-hand account of life as a wartime nurse, Testament of Youth (which I highly recommend), this is the first time I’ve read about the same subject from an Australian perspective. It was fascinating, although if you’re squeamish I should warn you that Sally and Naomi are faced with all kinds of gruesome battle wounds, injuries and illnesses – and they are described in a lot of detail, along with the medical procedures and surgical operations that are used to treat them.

Now I need to explain what I didn’t like about this book and it’s something that’s really a matter of personal taste. In his author’s note, Keneally tells us that if the use of punctuation in the novel sometimes seems unusual it’s because he has taken inspiration from ‘the forgotten private journals of the Great War, written by men and women who frequently favoured dashes rather than commas’. The dashes didn’t bother me, but the lack of quotation marks did! We use punctuation to indicate speech for a reason and because it wasn’t there I found that the text didn’t flow properly, which made it unnecessarily difficult to read. I felt that I was viewing the events of the story from a distance and never fully engaged with either Durance sister. In fact, I found most of the characters quite bland and difficult to tell apart. There was none of the passion and emotion that I would have expected from a book like this.

I can’t comment on the accuracy of the book (as I said, wartime nursing is not a subject I know much about) but it does seem to have been very well researched and covers almost every aspect of the war you can think of from conscription and conscientious objectors to shell shock and the Spanish flu. Despite the problems I had with Keneally’s writing, I found the story interesting enough to keep reading until I reached the end. And what an intriguing ending it was! Unfortunately I can’t tell you what was so special about it, but it was completely unexpected and I’m still not sure whether I liked it or not – it’s the sort of ending that will leave you wondering why the author chose to end the book in that way and what message he wanted us to take from it.

If anyone has read any other Thomas Keneally books, let me know if you think I should try another one. Are his other books written in a more conventional style?

The Constant Nymph by Margaret Kennedy

The Constant Nymph This week Jane of Fleur in her World has been hosting a Margaret Kennedy Reading Week. Margaret Kennedy is a new author for me so I could have chosen to read any of her books (they all sound intriguing in different ways), but I decided to go with The Constant Nymph, as I’d received a copy from NetGalley a while ago. The Constant Nymph was published in 1924 and is probably Margaret Kennedy’s best-known book.

At the beginning of the novel, Lewis Dodd, a talented young composer is on his way to the Tyrol to visit his friend and fellow musician, Albert Sanger, who lives in a chalet in the Alps with his large family. Sanger has seven children – with three different mothers – and they are known collectively as ‘Sanger’s circus’. Lewis has been a frequent visitor to the chalet for years and the children consider him almost part of the family, but for fourteen-year-old Teresa (Tessa) he’s something more than that: he is the man she has loved for as long as she can remember. Lewis loves Tessa too, but as he is more than twice her age, they don’t tell each other how they feel.

When Albert Sanger dies unexpectedly, Sanger’s circus is broken up; the two eldest children, Caryl and Kate, decide to start new lives elsewhere, while Sanger’s current mistress, Linda, moves out of the family home with her young daughter, Susan. Tessa’s sixteen-year-old sister, the wild and free-spirited Antonia, marries her lover Jacob Birnbaum, so that only Tessa and her two younger siblings, Paulina and Sebastian, remain. Their relatives in England come to the rescue, with the children’s cousin, Florence Churchill, setting off for the Alps to see what she can do to help.

Florence is a well-educated, beautiful and refined young woman of twenty-eight and is shocked by the Sangers’ unconventional, bohemian lifestyle. She immediately makes plans to bring Tessa, Paulina and Sebastian to England and send them to school. Before she leaves Austria, however, she finds herself falling in love with Lewis Dodd who is still at the chalet. Despite his feelings for Tessa, Lewis is also drawn to Florence and the two are soon married.

It may seem that I’ve given away a lot of the plot here, but all of this actually takes place in the first half of the book. The remainder of the novel describes the marriage between Lewis and Florence, which as you might expect, is not a very successful one as Lewis really wants to be with Tessa – who is still in love with him. The viewpoint shifts from character to character so that we can understand the emotions and motives of all three (I never managed to warm to Lewis at all, but loved Tessa and had some sympathy for Florence). As the story starts to move towards the final chapters it’s obvious that things aren’t going to end happily for all of them – and maybe not for any of them. The ending, when it does come, is unexpected and not very satisfying. I felt that the characters deserved a better conclusion to their story.

I was also a bit disappointed that so many of Tessa’s other family members and friends disappeared in the middle of the book; Kennedy had gone to so much trouble to introduce us to Caryl and Kate, Linda and Susan, the Russian Trigorin and others, it seemed a shame not to develop any of their stories any further (though I’m aware that there’s a sequel, The Fool of the Family, where we might meet some of them again).

I did enjoy The Constant Nymph, though! The book hasn’t aged very well in some respects (the portrayal of Antonia’s Jewish husband, for example) but then, I read a lot of older books and can accept that sometimes they do feel dated. I loved the setting, the characterisation and the elegant, engaging writing style and am looking forward to reading more of Margaret Kennedy’s books. Thanks to Jane for hosting the reading week and introducing me to an author I might never have thought about trying!