OK

There comes a time reading each book when the reader either decides this is a bore, what else is there to look at and what's on TV or Oh! I didn't see that coming, I never considered that or here's a new connection.

It was a connection that made me continue with Hannah Kent's debut novel, Burial Rites. It's a retelling of what happened to young housekeeper Agnes Magnúsdóttir, who in 1830 was the last woman to be executed for murder in Iceland. She and Friðrik Sigurðsson were beheaded after convicted of helping murder two men. The execution sentence of another, younger woman, Sigríður Guðmundsdóttir, was commuted to a life sentence of labor.

The novel begins with the actual public notice of an auction of one of the dead man's belongings and letters from the district commissioner carrying on the business of setting up the execution. It continues with the story of the young minister who Agnes requests to counsel her to prepare her for death, the family of the man who is charged with keeping Agnes at his home until her execution and, in first person narrative, Agnes.

The early going is dire. The Jónsdóttir family charged with watching Agnes live in poverty; they had to sell the wood encasing the interior of their dirt home and are living within the confines of the crumbling sod; the window openings are covered with fish membranes. It has given them all chronic bronchial conditions. It's literally killing the wife and mother. The young assistant pastor called to minister to Agnes is the son of a bleak man, who is as filled with the curdled milk that never saw human kindness as any other emotional miser. He has no idea how to minister to Agnes.

Agnes is more dead than alive through abuse and neglect. But Margrét doesn't know that. She is a fearful creature, withered and sour from being poor and ill. She doesn't want Agnes; the fear of the unknown murderess harming her daughters is visceral.

Then she sees what a poor, bedraggled creature Agnes is in reality. Magrét realizes the gap between what she had been thinking beforehand and what she sees:

The only murderesses Margrét had known were the women in the sagas ... But these times are not saga times, Margrét had thought. This woman is not a saga woman. She's a landless workmaid raised on a porridge of moss and poverty.
Until this bit came along, I considered putting Burial Rites aside. It's not like the ending would be a surprise. And to get there, the unrelenting misery had so far appeared to be a higher climb than expected.

But that bit made all the difference. It is the first time there is anything in the novel that speaks of the better side of humanity, even though it is small. That Margrét can view Agnes as a poor creature raised on moss and poverty instead of a faceless monster is the first break-through of sun in a ceaseless grey sky that meets grey land in the horizon.

That's where making a connection came in. Just like Margrét, I often feel we don't live in saga times, either, that the pettiness and greed and hypocrisy are consuming the best of us. That civilization is crawling backwards toward the grey primordial ooze.

And then I realize I've fallen victim to hyperbole.

Making a connection between hyperbole and sagas, I realize that living in a saga time would be like living in a Marvel Comics movie. No thank you. I'd rather have the simple pleasures of sharing laughs with my students, cracking open a book I've long anticipated reading, being delighted at the insights shown by our DK community, watching Doctor Who or listening to Bruce Springsteen's music.

Making connections led to the rest of the novel as well, with its twisted relationships, heart-wrenching poems actually written by a rival of Agnes's and herself, and poetic prose from Kent, an Australian author who has spent time in Iceland. Although I'm not wired to be able to listen to an audiobook, I can imagine that those who do would appreciate the novel in that format.

If writing this diary series has done anything, it's confirmed my choice to continue using my reading philosophy: Open the book and see what's there. Many things I found in Burial Rites were not expected, but that only means the journey undertaken to find them was even more worth the time.

During Thanksgiving week in the United States, it seems appropriate to find something to be thankful for, especially in an unexpected place. May the same thing happen to you this week.

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Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Tue Nov 26, 2013 at 05:00 PM PST.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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