Review: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

“What sort of woman kills men?”

In northern Iceland, 1829, Agnes Magnúsdóttir is condemned to death for her part in the brutal murder of two men.

Agnes is sent to wait out the time leading to her execution on the farm of District Officer Jón Jónsson, his wife and their two daughters. Horrified to have a convicted murderess in their midst, the family avoids speaking with Agnes. Only Tóti, the young assistant reverend appointed as Agnes’ spiritual guardian, is compelled to try to understand her, as he attempts to salvage her soul. As the summer months fall away to winter and the hardships of rural life force the household to work side by side, Agnes’ ill-fated tale of longing and betrayal begins to emerge. And as the days to her execution draw closer, the question burns: did she or didn’t she?

Based on a true story, Burial Rites is a deeply moving novel about personal freedom: who we are seen to be versus who we believe ourselves to be, and the ways in which we will risk everything for love. In beautiful, cut-glass prose, Hannah Kent portrays Iceland’s formidable landscape, where every day is a battle for survival, and asks, how can one woman hope to endure when her life depends upon the stories told by others?

That synopsis alone had me enchanted, so you can imagine how much I ended up loving the actual story written by Kent and narrated by the phenomenal Morven Christie. Speaking of, deciding to listen to the audiobook was one of the best ones decisions I made. It helped tremendously in learning how to correctly pronounce Icelandic names and places. And Christie’s narration only added to the eerie and gloomy atmosphere of this book. She’s purely brilliant in giving the characters their fitting voice, especially the one for Agnes Magnúsdóttir. I would come to anticipate her chapters purely for the fact that Morven Christie’s gave her such a richly measured and distinctly calm voice. Plus, when I tried to pick up the book and read it by myself, it just didn’t have the same haunting effect.

And if you’re not convinced after reading this next passage…

“I remain quiet. I am determined to close myself to the world, to tighten my heart and hold on to what has not yet been stolen from me. I cannot let myself slip away. I will hold what I am inside, and keep my hands tight around all the things I have seen and heard, and felt. The poems composed as I washed and scythed and cooked until my hands were raw. The sagas I know by heart. I am sinking all I have left and going underwater. If I speak, it will be in bubbles of air. They will not be able to keep my words for themselves. They will see the whore, the madwoman, the murderess, the female dripping blood into the grass and laughing with her mouth choked with dirt. They will say ‘Agnes’ and see the spider, the witch caught in the webbing of her own fateful weaving. They might see the lamb circled by ravens, bleating for a lost mother. But they will not see me. I will not be there.”

This piece, written with such haunting and hypnotizing detail, completely seized my heart. Which I quickly came to realize would occur more than once throughout Burial Rites. The imagery behind certain pieces in Kent’s writing were so evocative, raw and hauntingly powerful, I was left in awe more than once.tumblr_okn1w1vcum1tuehrqo3_250And I was surprised, though I shouldn’t have been, when I grew fond of Agnes Magnúsdóttir with each passing page. It was the little things I noticed that left me under her spell, such as:

  • Her obsession with foresights, superstitions, omens and ravens. I loved this because it reminded me of my favorite magical realism story, The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton:

“And creatures should be loved for their wisdom if they cannot be loved for kindness. As a child, I watched the ravens gather on the roof of Undirfell church, hoping to learn who was going to die. I sat on the wall, waiting for one to shake out his feathers, waiting to see which direction his beak turned. It happened once. A raven settled upon the wooden gable and jerked his beak towards the farm of Bakki, and a little boy drowned later that week, found swollen and grey downriver. The raven had known.”

  • Speaking of magical realism, I was over the moon when I saw how seriously some characters took their dreams in here, because same!!

“‘Reverend,’ she said quietly. ‘If I tell you something, will you promise to believe me?’
Tóti felt his heart leap in his chest. ‘What is it you want to tell me, Agnes?’
‘Remember when you first visited me here, and you asked me why I had chosen you to be my priest, and I told you that it was because of an act of kindness, because you had helped me across the river?’ Agnes cast a wary glance out to the group of people on the edge of the field. ‘I wasn’t lying,’ she continued. ‘We did meet then. But what I didn’t tell you was that we had met before.’
Tóti raised his eyebrows. ‘I’m sorry, Agnes. I don’t remember.’
‘You wouldn’t have. We met in a dream.’”

I said it once and I’ll say it again: This is how you win over my heart in a flash.

  • Also loved how Agnes didn’t give a flying fuck:

“‘You called me a child,’ Tóti said.
‘I offended you.’ She seemed disinterested.
‘I wasn’t offended,’ Tóti said, lying. ‘But you’re wrong, Agnes. Yes, I’m a young man, but I have spent three long years at the school of Bessastadir in the south, I speak Latin and Greek and Danish, and God has chosen me to shepherd you to redemption.’
Agnes looked at him, unblinking. ‘No. I chose you, Reverend.’”

Kelis ft Too $hort – Bossy plays in the background, just like when Noora shredded William into absolute pieces with her words in Skam. *
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  • And quickly circling back to the writing, some passages simply left my mind reeling with how seamlessly perfect, dark, and brutally honest they were.

Exhibit A:

“‘And do you remember her death very well?’
Agnes stopped knitting and looked around at the women again. They had fallen silent and were listening. ‘Do I remember?’ she repeated, a little louder. ‘I wish I could forget it.’ She unhooked her index finger from the thread of wool and brought it to her forehead. ‘In here,’ she said, ‘I can turn to that day as though it were a page in a book. It’s written so deeply upon my mind I can almost taste the ink.”

Exhibit B:

“‘But, Agnes, actions speak louder than words.’
‘Actions lie,’ Agnes retorted quickly. ‘Sometimes people never stood a chance in the beginning, or they might have made a mistake. When people start saying things like she must be a bad mother because of that mistake . . .’
When Tóti said nothing in response she went on.
‘It’s not fair. People claim to know you through the things you’ve done, and not by sitting down and listening to you speak for yourself. No matter how much you try to live a godly life, if you make a mistake in this valley, it’s never forgotten. No matter if you tried to do what was best. No matter if your innermost self whispers, “I am not as you say!” – how other people think of you determines who you are.’”

If there’s one thing that I’m sure of, it’s that Hannah Kent can write like nobody’s business.

  • On that note, I have to mention the memory Agnes was talking about in the first exhibit, because I cannot stop thinking about it ever since I read it. Agnes describing the death of her foster-mother during birth… it was painful and tragic and vivid, and I’m still speechless that it all occurred during a storm.

“‘It’s strange,’ Agnes said, using her little finger to wind the wool about the needle head. ‘Most of the time when I think of when I was younger, everything is unclear. As though I were looking at things through smoked glass. But Inga’s death, and everything that came after it . . . I almost feel that it was yesterday.’”

I had hardly breathed during Agnes recalling this memory. That whole chapter messed me up… AND NOW I CAN’T STOP THINKING ABOUT IT. Real talk, those were some masterful storytelling skills on the author’s part.

  • Side note: Iceland is one of my top places to visit, so I was beyond ecstatic to explore it through words. And the author did a beyond phenomenal job of bringing the place to life. Also, I loved getting to know a bit of history on the place and its customs. (P.S. this photo essay of the places Kent wrote about was great to look into after reading.)
  • And one last thing I want to discuss: that ending… I knew what was coming, but that didn’t help ease the pain in the least when what happened, happened. My heart ached even more when we got to see Agnes growing closer to the members of the family at the farm of Kornsá. Margrét in particular was like the mother figure she’d never had. And so their goodbyes consequently broke my heart into tiny little pieces.

“Margrét is reaching out to me and she takes my hand in hers, clasps my fingers so tightly that it hurts, it hurts.
‘You are not a monster,’ she says. Her face is flushed and she bites her lip, she bites down. Her fingers, entwined with my own, are hot and greasy.
‘They’re going to kill me.’ Who said that? Did I say that?
‘We’ll remember you, Agnes.’ She presses my fingers more tightly, until I almost cry out from the pain, and then I am crying. I don’t want to be remembered, I want to be here!
‘Margrét!’
‘I am right here, Agnes. You’ll be all right, my girl. My girl.”

MY GIRL. I had to stop myself from crying at this point. (Still, as I’m writing this.)21955051If one thing’s for sure, this beautiful, all-consuming novel about family, secrets, and murder won’t be leaving my mind for awhile.

Plus, listening to this emotional song really got me further into the story:

5/5 stars

Note: I’m an Amazon Affiliate. If you’re interested in buying Burial Rites, just click on the image below to go through my link. I’ll make a small commission!

Review: Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi

I found this beauty of a book in the library and just had to check it out when the cover transfixed my eyes. And with already having read Oyeyemi’s What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours in the previous month, I was more than ready to pick up this tale.

In the winter of 1953, Boy Novak arrives by chance in a small town in Massachusetts, looking, she believes, for beauty—the opposite of the life she’s left behind in New York. She marries a local widower and becomes stepmother to his winsome daughter, Snow Whitman.

A wicked stepmother is a creature Boy never imagined she’d become, but elements of the familiar tale of aesthetic obsession begin to play themselves out when the birth of Boy’s daughter, Bird, who is dark-skinned, exposes the Whitmans as light-skinned African Americans passing for white. Among them, Boy, Snow, and Bird confront the tyranny of the mirror to ask how much power surfaces really hold.

I feel like saying that Boy, Snow, Bird is a retelling of Snow White is quite confusing as it’s barely that. I mean, sure there are some nods to the original tale, however, less than you would anticipate. I ended up liking the book more for its take on beauty, vanity, and race.

Speaking of, I’m going to continue with the positive aspects of this book, and then towards the end discuss something that really made me feel at unease.

The positives:

  • The writing knocked me out of the park. Oyeyemi has exactly the kind of writing style I love i.e. specific as hell.

Just to share some of the love:

“She’s tall too, tall in a way that you only really notice at certain moments. The statues of Greek gods were built two and a half times the size of the average human being; I read that in a book Miss Fairfax lent me. The book describes the magnification as being small enough for the figure to remain familiar, but large enough to make you feel mighty strange standing near it. You sense some imminent threat, but common sense tells you there’s no danger, so you don’t run away. You keep a distance that appears to be a respectful one, and you don’t run away, just keep hovering on the point of doing so.”

Also this:

“Hey, Bird—”
“Yeah?”
“Do I look forty?”
“Forty years old?” I asked, trying to buy time.
“Yes, forty years old.”
Her eyes flicked up toward the rearview mirror. I was sitting in the backseat because she doesn’t like to have anyone sitting next to her while she is driving. She says it makes her feel crowded in.”

  • Boy, Snow, Bird was a quick read once invested in the storyline ( about half-way through, for me).
  • I picked this up when I really needed a distraction from real life — and it did its job perfectly.
  • Sisterly-love. I LOVED how the author took the time to really develop the friendship between the two sisters. Sisterhood is such an important topic for me, and I always appreciate an author that tackles it with the utmost precision and love.
  • The magical realism had me enamoured till the end.
  • The head-on discussion of race.
  • All the relationships and people that get connected and explained towards the end thrilled me. I loved how something or someone that was mentioned in the first half would reappear towards the end.
  • … I tried to keep it short, but I have to include these next two quotes that have taken over my life:

“I’d recently come across a proverb about not speaking unless you’d thought of something that was better than silence. So I kept typing.”

“No revelation is immediate, not if it’s real. I feel that more and more.”

Ok, now that I’ve got all the ravings out of my system, onto the negatives: I mainly only have one thing to discuss, which is that ending…

Spoilers ahead

This next passage is taken from this article I found that perfectly summed up the events that were written high-key problematically: “In the final pages of the novel, we learn that Boy’s father, Frank Novak, was at one point known as Frances Novak. Frances was a promising graduate student doing advanced research in psychology when she was raped by an acquaintance, at which point she abandoned her work and began to live as a man. Unfortunately, Frances became pregnant as a result of the rape, and it is implied—though not stated outright—that it was in large part this confluence of circumstances that led to Frank’s brutal mistreatment of Boy. When Boy learns the details of her birth, she rounds up Snow and Bird and heads off for New York, determined to “break the spell” holding Frances captive and thus undo the damage she herself has wrought in her dealings with Snow and Bird.

Based on this brief synopsis, one might reach any or all of the following unfortunate conclusions:

  1. Transgenderism is the result of trauma.
  2. Transgenderism is something that can (and should) be “cured.”
  3. Being [transgender] causes you to turn into an abusive sociopath and shove starving rats in your child’s face.”

I don’t even have words for that ending. This is the one time a book has left me completely speechless, and not in a good way either. The way Oyeyemi characterised Frankes Novak becoming Frank Novak just felt completely offensive. And I’m utterly disappointed with the author for making Novak’s decision seem like a plot twist that appeared in the last ten or so pages. It’s such a harmful take on an important and more than often underrepresented topic in literature. Instead, I’d recommend giving Coffee Boy by Austin Chant a read for its positive trans representation by an own voices author.

So I’m not sure what to think of Boy, Snow, Bird. If it weren’t for that harmful representation, I would’ve easily praised this book for its take on race, but yeah… tearing down one group while voicing another doesn’t work for me.16459553

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Review: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

I was hesitant at first with picking this up because I thought A Little Life revolved around four white dudes and their #whitepeopleproblems. But oh, was I incredibly mistaken. The cast of characters in this one is far from what I thought; it tackles a variety of topics such as sexuality, race, disabilities, mental illness, and so much more.
Not what I expected and for once, I was glad to be so off-track.

If you’re looking to diversify your reading (as you should!!), this book has it all:

  • POC characters.
  • Multiple LGBTQ+ ships.
  • Disabled main character.
  • Honest look on mental health and mental illnesses.

This review contains *spoilers*.

tumblr_oat8djp2t11s9egmko1_500Source

This profound, tragic, memorable book centered around four college roommates from a small Massachusetts college moving to New York to make their way, is more complex than meets the eye. First and foremost, Yanagihara is a storyteller and her detailed and complex characters drive her work. There is kind, handsome Willem, an aspiring actor; JB, a quick-witted, sometimes cruel Brooklyn-born painter seeking entry to the art world; Malcolm, a frustrated architect at a prominent firm; and withdrawn, brilliant, enigmatic Jude, who serves as their center of gravity.

Let’s take a minute to start from the beginning and really understand each member that creates this dynamic foursome:

Jude St. Francis (aka the one who deserves the whole wide world and more):

We get to know Jude slowly but surely, and the one thing I remember most was how I truly enjoyed the specificity and depth of his character. He made me see the world anew and think differently as well.

Also, I keep going back in my mind to his first and only social worker, “and the first person who had never betrayed him,” and every time I just end up in tears.

“I don’t see why I have to talk about it at all,” he muttered at her once. He knew she had read his records from Montana; he knew she knew what he was.
She was quiet. “One thing I’ve learned,” she said, “you have to talk about these things while they’re fresh. Or you’ll never talk about them. I’m going to teach you how to talk about them, because it’s going to get harder and harder the longer you wait, and it’s going to fester inside you, and you’re always going to think you’re to blame. You’ll be wrong, of course, but you’ll always think it.”

She was Jude’s rock, and seeing her slowly disappear made my everything hurt. Ana was good people, the best.

“You’re going to be great at college,” she said. She shut her eyes. “The other kids are going to ask you about how you grew up, have you thought about that?”
“Sort of,” he said. It was all he thought about.
“Mmph,” she grunted. She didn’t believe him either. “What are you going to tell them?” And then she opened her eyes and looked at him.
“I don’t know,” he admitted.
“Ah, yes,” she said. They were quiet. “Jude,” she began, and then stopped. “You’ll find your own way to discuss what happened to you. You’ll have to, if you ever want to be close to anyone. But your life—no matter what you think, you have nothing to be ashamed of, and none of it has been your fault. Will you remember that?”
It was the closest they had ever gotten to discussing not only the previous year but the years that preceded it, too. “Yes,” he told her.
She glared at him. “Promise me.”
“I promise.”
But even then, he couldn’t believe her.
She sighed. “I should’ve made you talk more,” she said. It was the last thing she ever said to him. Two weeks later—July third—she was dead.”

I had to stop myself from crying then. Her death was all I thought about in the days following. It impacted more than I anticipated, which just goes to show how every single character in A Little Life was extremely well developed. Even when we only have a glimpse of them on the page.

Also, this:

“You won’t understand what I mean now, but someday you will: the only trick of friendship, I think, is to find people who are better than you are—not smarter, not cooler, but kinder, and more generous, and more forgiving—and then to appreciate them for what they can teach you, and to try to listen to them when they tell you something about yourself, no matter how bad—or good—it might be, and to trust them, which is the hardest thing of all. But the best, as well.”

Willem Ragnarsson aka the best of friends you’ll ever have:

Oh man, the love I have for this one is hard to capture in words. Willem was what made this novel start off so promising for me. The love and patience he has for his friends, especially for Jude, was truly inspiring. And their connection in their twenties was on a whole other level.

“Why wasn’t friendship as good as a relationship? Why wasn’t it even better? It was two people who remained together, day after day, bound not by sex or physical attraction or money or children or property, but only by the shared agreement to keep going, the mutual dedication to a union that could never be codified.”tumblr_ogalgiycoa1vj8gn9o2_250I wanted Willem, who was humble, hardworking and diligent, to have everything he deserved, everything he desired. He was my favorite.

Also, this:

“Sometimes he wakes so far from himself that he can’t even remember who he is. “Where am I?” he asks, desperate, and then, “Who am I? Who am I?”
And then he hears, so close to his ear that it is as if the voice is originating inside his own head, Willem’s whispered incantation. “You’re Jude St. Francis. You are my oldest, dearest friend. You’re the son of Harold Stein and Julia Altman. You’re the friend of Malcolm Irvine, of Jean-Baptiste Marion, of Richard Goldfarb, of Andy Contractor, of Lucien Voigt, of Citizen van Straaten, of Rhodes Arrowsmith, of Elijah Kozma, of Phaedra de los Santos, of the Henry Youngs.
“You’re a New Yorker. You live in SoHo. You volunteer for an arts organization; you volunteer for a food kitchen.
“You’re a swimmer. You’re a baker. You’re a cook. You’re a reader. You have a beautiful voice, though you never sing anymore. You’re an excellent pianist. You’re an art collector. You write me lovely messages when I’m away. You’re patient. You’re generous. You’re the best listener I know. You’re the smartest person I know, in every way. You’re the bravest person I know, in every way.
“You’re a lawyer. You’re the chair of the litigation department at Rosen Pritchard and Klein. You love your job; you work hard at it.
“You’re a mathematician. You’re a logician. You’ve tried to teach me, again and again.
“You were treated horribly. You came out on the other end. You were always you.”

In the end, all I can say is I LOVED HIM SO FUCKING MUCH.

Malcolm Irvine the “noncommittal” and conventional one:

We got to know so little about Malcolm that at first all I associated with him was his money and  work. I did, however, love how he slowly but surely found his passion and ambition while renovating each and every one of his friends’ houses. You could feel his devotion and dedication pouring off the page.

Jean-Baptiste “JB”  Marion the self-involved one:

I don’t even know where to start with JB because he had a lot going on that ended up affecting all of them. But I do want to focus on one major event that destroyed what had been more than twenty years of friendship when he decided hurt Jude in the most traumatising way by impersonating him. And I was gobsmacked even more when we got to see the aftermath it left on both sides. I always loved seeing the four of them together. They truly had something special. And I still can’t forgive him for ruining it like that; for hurting Jude like that.

“Why did you do that, JB? Why did you do that to him, of all people?”


And then, suddenly, things began to turn a bit sour for me… There’s just such a thing as too much tragedy in novels, and I’m not sure the author got that. At a certain point when truly atrocious things were happening time after time after time, I was left feeling numb.
I mean:

  • Jude has a profoundly disturbing (disturbing doesn’t even begin to describe it) childhood from literally day one.
  • Jude gets abused, sold into prostitution, kidnapped, run over by a car—and all before the age of fifteen.
  • Jude began a relationship that quickly turned out to be abusive and deadly, and it had its long-term reverberations.
  • Jude loses the people important to him the instant they truly connect. MULTIPLE TIMES.
  • Jude has to get his legs amputated.
  • Jude tries to end his life. MULTIPLE TIMES.
  • The more the novel progressed, the worse things were getting in Jude’s life.

Willem the Hero/ Ragnarsson the Terrible perfectly describes how it felt hearing about all the horrors Jude went through:

“He felt that he had in some ways learned more about Jude in the past year than he had in the past twenty-six, and each new thing he learned was awful: Jude’s stories were the kinds of stories that he was unequipped to answer, because so many of them were unanswerable. The story of the scar on the back of his hand—that had been the one that had begun it—had been so terrible that Willem had stayed up that night, unable to sleep, and had seriously contemplated calling Harold, just to be able to have someone else share the story with him, to be speechless alongside him.”

The more I read, the more I understood that there was no mercy, particularly for Jude. He went through so much intense shit, and it got to a point where it was physically painful to read. Some stories were so terrible that it had left me with a full night of contemplation. Where were the silver linings?

I talked it over with my mother and the more I discussed it, the more I realized how livid I was at the manipulativeness I felt in the writing. I mean, Willem got into a fucking car accident by the last hundred pages or so and I felt NOTHING. That’s how messed up I found this book. My favorite characters dies and I feel nothing. And I quickly realized that it wasn’t me, it was the book. At a certain point after you read about only pain, pain and pain, you end up feeling nothing at all. It was just too much for me. Don’t get me wrong, A Little Life was a good book, but by the end, I was more than ready to leave.

So I’m not sure whether I loved this book as much as I did in the first part (because it had some lightness in it) or if I’m tremendously disappointed as I felt in the last part (because it had so much darkness in it). A Little Life has been pretty well talked up so my expectations were clearly high. But still, it…it did disappoint a bit.

4/5 stars

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