I thought it would be apt to end April by reading a subject the month is dedicated to. April is celebrated as Autism Awareness Month, to raise awareness about people with autism spectrum disorders. “Sam & Chester” is about a child, Sam, who lost the ability to speak and function properly at age two. The toddler who was seemingly growing “normally”, suddenly cut off from the world, grew increasingly isolated, and often suffered meltdowns. He was officially diagnosed as autistic at age four. Chester was a tiny ginger piglet, the only brown one in a litter of white piglets – the one that no one wanted. “Sam & Chester” is the story of two children who didn’t seem to fit into their worlds, and found solace in each other. Sam’s mother, Jo (the author of the book), beautifully describes the relationship between her son and his pet cum best friend, as they help each other get through life.
The beauty of this book is that it is not just a book about our animal friends. Jo Bailey touches on a cornucopia of themes within the book. Just as autism is a spectrum disorder, Jo delves into various subjects surrounding her son’s life. Ultimately it is not about a child with autism, but a family with autism – everyone in the child’s immediate surroundings is affected by and responsible for the child’s development. Jo describes her own divorce with her husband – touching the topic of how relationships between parents of a special child are affected, the shift of blame, or denial of the condition altogether. Striking balance when one child is autistic and one is not – how does one differentiate between a meltdown related to autism, or a regular tantrum by a child? When the autistic child is the older sibling, and the younger sibling shows faster developmental gains, how is the relationship between siblings affected? How much of a role do grandparents and cousins play? And of course, the presence of pets in the lives of special children. Autism is characterized by a lack of verbal communication, and animals seem to instinctively build a connection – they can teach communication and empathy without saying a word. Chester brings a whole new light to the narration. Pigs are considered the fifth most intelligent animals in the world – even higher than dogs. They are more trainable than dogs, have better focus than chimps, and excellent memory. A great many learnings here about an unconventional pet.
Many books have been written on similar themes, but Sam & Chester strikes a chord on many levels. It is not just the story of a boy, but also the story of a mother. And Jo Bailey does a commendable job in bringing her family’s story to us. You don’t need to be an animal lover to read this book; it is powerful on many counts.
“People claim to know you through the things you’ve done, and not by sitting down and listening to you speak for yourself.” ~Agnes Magnúsdóttir (1828)
When I love a book, I waste no time in talking and writing about it – people need to know, and they need to read. There are very few books which strike such a chord that I’m left dwelling on them long after reading – whatever I say will not be enough; no review would ever do justice. “Burial Rites” falls in the latter category. This book came highly recommended from an online literary forum I follow, and in spite of receiving numerous recommendations I only recently got around to reading it. And what a treat it has been! I usually avoid reading fictional accounts of true incidents, and rather opt for non-fiction books on the same subject, if available. But Hannah Kent’s debut work was highly spoken of and I decided to give the then twenty-eight year old writer a shot. “Burial Rites” is a novelization of a true story set in the early 1800s cold, wintered landscape of Iceland, and is centered around the conviction and final days of a woman sentenced to death for a double murder – commonly known as the Illugastaðir murders, the farm where the killings took place. Capital punishment was abolished in Iceland in 1830, and Agnes Magnúsdóttir was the last woman to be beheaded.
Agnes Magnúsdóttir, a thirty something housemaid, is charged with the murder of her master and his friend. The district commissioner Björn Blöndal has entrusted her to the household of one of the officers – where she needs to be kept until her execution. In his words, death row convicts need to be placed in the homes of upright Christians who would set a good example and inspire repentance in the criminals, and at the same time benefit from the work these prisoners do in and around their farms as they await their judgement. The family is compensated by the government for their contribution to society, and officers are also present on the premises to ensure no harm comes to the locals. A young priest, Assistant Reverend Thorvardur Jónsson is required to visit the household and pray with the criminal to ensure she is repentant by the time of her execution. The family is horrified at the prospect of housing a murderess and avoid interacting with her. The reverend has no prior experience in dealing with murder convicts, and all he can contribute are passages from the Bible. Agnes has nothing to do at the farm since the family is wary of giving her any “tools” – suspicious of what she can use to kill them with. Even a request to knit is almost a plead, with the possible harm she could do with knitting needles. Having to idle away time till her death and no one to talk to, Agnes hopes to be killed then and there itself. “Why not kill me here and now? It is the waiting that cripples.”
The story is narrated through a series of correspondence between the various officials involved in the case – the district commissioner, the priests, the district officer, various clerks and officers handling the criminal records. Not to be confused with an epistolary novel, these were actual letters exchanged at the time which the author has translated and presented to the reader. Each chapter begins with numerous letters, and then follows changing narratives from the third person’s accounts of the happenings in the case, to Agnes herself speaking in first person. And step by step, the reader is led through Agnes’ story – her childhood and adulthood, her parents and siblings, her work life, ultimately leading to the core of the murder mystery that shook Iceland in the early nineteenth century – What exactly happened on the day of the murder that led Agnes to her present state?
“They have strapped me to the saddle like a corpse being taken to the burial ground” , says Agnes, when taken to the farm that will house her till her death. And this is the crux of “Burial Rites” – the entire book is a rite of passage for Agnes as she readies herself for death. Agnes looks forward to living at the farm even when none of the residents want her there (and are only abiding to the district commissioner’s orders), being “grateful that I am returning to the valleys, even if I will die there”. Because living (and dying) in nature is better than “rotting slowly like a body in a coffin” – the atmosphere of the prison she was housed in before being transferred to the farm. Set in the present moment at the farm, the story is narrated in flashback mode through conversations and interactions with various family members – the officer, his wife Margret, the daughters Steina and Lauga, the priest Toti, and Agnes’ thoughts. And as the day of execution nears, the wife, daughters and priest learn of the other side to the sensational double murder story as projected by the authorities and rumor mills. Her final audience to life’s lonely narrative. An absolutely riveting account as Agnes goes from wanting to die to wanting to live, when people finally hear and understand her. “I don’t want to be remembered, I want to be here!” But can they do more? Appeal to the government? Stop the execution? No spoilers here since we know what finally happened to Agnes Magnúsdóttir – the last person to be executed in Iceland, before the country finally abolished capital punishment in 1830.
Some of the quotes are so beautiful I thought they deserved a mention here:
~I was worst to the one I loved best.
~I will speak in bubbles of air. They will not be able to keep my words for themselves.
~The home had begun to disintegrate, a hovel that had spread its own state of collapse to its inhabitants.
~A tight fear, like a fishing line, hooked upon something that must, inevitably, be dragged from the depths.
~A tremble of exhilaration passes along my skin, like the tremor on the surface of a pot of water about to boil.
~Memories shift like loose snow in a wind, or are a choral of ghosts all talking over one another.
~There was some comfort in talking about death aloud, as though in naming things, you could prevent them from happening.
~There is so much illness in the world…so much that can go wrong with a person.
~A person you love as much as you hate the hold they have on you.
~They said I must die. They said that I stole the breath from men, and now they must steal mine.
Kent’s interpretation of the Illugastaðir murders and executions is based on years of research through accessing ministerial records, parish archives, local publications, historical records, letters and documents. There are several works of literature and poetry mentioned, highlighting the high literacy rates among Icelanders since the end of the eighteenth century. Some sagas quoted go as far back as 1245. I loved the snippets of Icelandic, and was glad to learn some phrases in the local language. Kent’s meticulously researched and written account is commendable indeed – for a debut writer, and just at twenty eight years of age when the book was published. When you already know how the story ends, it takes a great writer to hold the reader’s attention till the end. In today’s social media age, people’s opinions and judgements of each other are often based on what is read or heard or seen on feeds, posts and pictures. In the early 1800s, Agnes Magnúsdóttir raised the same question – What happens when one’s life is based on the stories told by others? Without speaking to the person, the world claims to know all about them. The fairness of the original proceedings of Iceland’s “most notorious woman” was questioned even centuries later, and reading “Burial Rites” is not for everyone. A difficult story to read but one that needs to be read for the many questions it raises. Kent is a talented writer and efficient researcher, and this is one of the few books where the author and protagonist of his/her story compete for attention – such is the brilliance of this speculative biography, a beautifully haunting, gripping, and outstanding debut work of literature. I read this on Kindle, but plan on procuring a paperback – it deserves a place in the library.
Fact is truly stranger than fiction. I have spent the past month reading a number of horror and thriller books – a spook fest dedicated to Halloween. One of the books I read (Murderabilia – will review in due time), touched upon the theme of serial killers. The names Fred and Rose West led me to discover this book by Howard Sounes. The month ended with “Fred & Rose” , a true account of the serial killer couple who gained notoriety in British criminal history for murdering numerous women and children over a period of twenty five years; their own children being among the victims. Author Howard Sounes was a journalist at the time the crime was uncovered in 1994, and had reported for the Sunday Mirror newspaper in London under the headline “House of Horrors” – the title the case came to be known as (before the Josef Fritzl case of 2008). Cited to be among the most extraordinary murder cases that shocked even police authorities and medical experts, the skeletal remains of twelve young women and children were discovered – all tortured and killed by the West couple. Nine remains were discovered in the house the couple was living in – buried in the cellar, under the bathroom tiles, near the chimney – as life continued normally in the household. The remains of twelve corpses were identified; it is not known how many people Fred and Rose West killed in all during their murderous spree from the late sixties to the early nineties.
In “Fred & Rose” , Sounes has attempted to understand why so many people died in and around 25 Cromwell Street – the House of Horrors. The book begins back in time with the grandparents and parents of both Fred and Rose. A background into their individual childhoods helps us understand what motivated such violence and how they developed into people capable of such behavior. Both Fred and Rose were born to parents suffering from mental illnesses at various points in time, and were abused as children themselves, and didn’t see anything wrong in what they did to other people, including their own children. According to them, pedophilia was a part of family life – something they too went through growing up. (Their grown up children later said they loved their parents, and assumed the abuse was what happened in all families.) To the outside world, they appeared as any normal couple – cheerfully greeting people on the street, helping out neighbors with chores, providing accommodation to lodgers at cheap rates – they seemed to go out of their way to help others. 25 Cromwell Street was in the middle of the city. Numerous visitors went in and out of the house. And yet no one had an inkling of what was going on within.
The targets included hitchhikers, problem children from delinquent hostels, runaways – people whom no one might inquire about if they went missing. Fred and Rose would drive around town together, offering rides to hitchhikers. Sometimes they would take their children along too. Women who might have been suspicious about getting into a car with a single man, did not see any danger with a young woman and/or children alongside. Young women were invited to work as nannies for their children. They provided lodging at cheap rates affordable for poor students. The women who trusted them were abducted, tortured, raped, killed, cut into pieces, and buried within the floors of the house. Some of their own children too met with the same fate. (The ones who survived did so because they ran away.) Pregnant women had their bellies cut up because Fred wanted to check the gender of the babies. (Fetal remains were found next to the remains of the mothers.) The crimes went undetected for twenty five years. Schools didn’t check when a child stopped turning up for classes. Emergency units treated wounds without bothering to inform the police about abuse. Social services did not follow up on pregnant women who were registered under their care. Children who complained to neighbors were answered with, “They would never do something like that” . Lodgers who inquired about screams at night were told the children must have been having nightmares. Out of all the remains found over two decades later, only six women had been reported missing by their families. The rest said they thought their relatives had left home and didn’t want to be bothered. The House of Horrors case was as much about the sadism of Fred and Rose West, as it was about the failure of society as a whole.
The couple did not know the names of all their victims, and barely registered the faces of the ones they picked up at night. Remains were identified on the basis of dental implants and superimposition. Evidence of torture was identified on the basis of cracks in the bones, cords around decapitated heads, tape and fabric around skulls, nails stripped from fingers. There might have been many more victims whose bodies were never located. Before writing the book, Howard Sounes had broken the story and covered the murder trial of the West couple. In an age where the media often plays judge and jury, Sounes has presented the book as plain facts. Beginning from their own childhood, up to the lives of their surviving children as adults, we are provided a case study of a life in crime in forensic detail, showcasing a fascinating and frightening account at the same time. Sounes does not let his own emotions about the killer couple influence the reader, and urges us to read and reflect for ourselves. Whether one chooses to see Fred and Rose as victims themselves on account of their own abusive childhoods affecting their personalities and later behavioral traits, or one feels the punishment they received from the courts wasn’t enough for the depravity of their crimes, this book is a must read for the case details it provides. The discovery and unearthing of the skeletal remains, forensic identifications of the victims, the court trial, police interviews with the couple, media frenzy, people trying to make a quick buck by claiming to be former victims, actual victims and police detectives selling stories to newspapers and book publishers – Sounes has everything covered about the House of Horrors case. Depictions of torture are gory, but however squeamish one feels as a reader, one realizes that people actually went through the sadism of Fred and Rose. Not a read for the faint-hearted, but a book that deserves to be read as an ode to the victims who finally got justice over two decades after their disappearance and death. My rating is for Sounes’ presentation of facts and writing quality of the book. The content is absolutely heartbreaking.
Finally got my hands on Khaled Hosseini’s long-awaited book – a combined creation with illustrator Dan Williams, to bring to life a story about Syrian refugees. The epistolary book is written in the form of a letter from a father to his child on the eve of their journey out at sea. Rather, it can be called more of a poem or letter, instead of story. The narrator is a father cradling his child, as they wait for the break of dawn when a boat will arrive to take them to a new home. As they stand waiting in the dark night, the father reminisces about the summers of his childhood at his own grandfather’s house in the city of Homs. He speaks to his son, Marwan, about the time when he was a young boy himself, the same age as Marwan. “The stirring of olive trees in the breeze, the bleating of goats, the clanking of cooking pots” seem like another life altogether; a life before the skies started “spitting bombs”. That life is now a dream, a long-dissolved rumor. All Marwan and children his age know now are protests, sieges, starvation, burials. They can identify shades of blood and sizes of bomb craters. They will never know the country of their birth as a place without bombings or ruin.
As they wait, impatient for sunrise, and dreading the uncertainty of a world that might not invite them in, they still hope to find home. The father assures his child that nothing bad will happen if he holds his hand, but he knows these are only words. The sea is deep and vast and indifferent, and he knows he is powerless in contrast. And that is why he prays. That is the essence of his “Sea Prayer” – that his most precious cargo is protected, and the sea delivers them safely to a new land.
“Sea Prayer” was inspired by the incident of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian refugee who had drowned in the Mediterranean Sea and whose body was washed ashore on a beach in Turkey in 2015. In the years after Alan’s death, thousands more died or went missing at sea while attempting to flee their torn country. Hosseini’s response to the current refugee crisis is an attempt to remind us that an incident is not isolated. This is not the story of one child or one parent, but the lives of many more – names and faces we might not always be told about in our corners of the world. The watercolor illustrations are fabulous and stay true to the text – beginning with bright colors as the father thinks fondly of a time long gone by, to dark and dreary shades of greys and browns reflective of the current situation in the country. The transformation from home to war zone is powerfully depicted in both words and sketches, and heartbreaking as you flip through the few pages of this slim volume. A light book which weighs heavily on the reader.
“Sea Prayer” was created as an effort to raise funds to help refugees around the world who are fleeing war and persecution. Proceeds from the sales of this book are said to be donated to UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and The Khaled Hosseini Foundation. A short but powerful book – the text says a little, the illustrations show a lot, and much more is conveyed in the background, beyond what one is reading. Having read Hosseini’s other works, I had hoped for this one to continue for longer. Nevertheless, it is impactful and evocative in it’s own way.
Rating – 5/5
This photograph of September 2015 made global headlines. Taken by Nilüfer Demir, a Turkish photojournalist based in Bodrum, Turkey, three-year-old Alan Kurdi became a symbol of the plight of those fleeing conflict in Syria. This haunting image compelled Hosseini to write “Sea Prayer” .
Sometimes, books find their readers in the oddest of ways. “Kudos” by Rachel Cusk came as a recommendation from someone who said he took over two weeks to read it – while on holiday. Just one book finished on a two-week road trip? He said there were also dance sessions in two towns, over 110 miles biking in various locations, 26 miles spent running on the beach, and riding many many waves on his Hobie. He likes his life well-rounded, he said. At the time, it was the reader himself who stood out, rather than his book. I love reading, but I also love running, dancing, baking, clicking photographs – in short, indulging in a wide variety of activities, unlike many bookworms who might only read. And when you meet someone from your tribe, you can’t help not paying heed to their recommendations. Rachel Cusk makes words go magic, he said.
“Kudos” is the third book from Canadian writer Rachel Cusk’s Outline Trilogy, after “Outline” and “Transit” . It is not necessary to read them in sequence, and they work as standalone reads too. Cusk is renowned for her “shape-shifting” style of writing. There’s no story and no specific narrator or character flow. Imagine someone narrating an incident about somebody else, which was about another person, who in turn was talking about some other experience with something else. The writing is layered, and like peeling an onion, Cusk takes you deeper in – until you no longer recognize what, where or with whom you originally started off. Kudos is one story, and it is many stories. And in each of those stories, people are telling you more stories. These stories are experiences around which the entire novel takes shape. “Respect for literature was skin deep” goes one of the lines in the book, and that’s exactly what Cusk’s writing does.
So, you have a storyteller telling a story about a storyteller. On its surface, Kudos is about a writer travelling to Europe to attend a literary event for promoting her book – taking the reader through her journey right from the time she boards the airplane to get there, till the end of the conference. The stories within this framework could be described as experiences – from generalized ones like striking up a conversation with a co-passenger while flying, chatting with a car driver, listening to gossip about famous personalities, to more specific ones for our writer of the main story like meeting translators, speaking to journalists, interacting with fellow writers and poets. Cusk makes the book seem almost autobiographical, and at the same time something that anyone of us could be going through. These are conversations – about family, friends, love, art, politics, law – questions human beings ask and the discourses which ensue. Out there in the world of strangers, friends, colleagues, family – details are everywhere, and it takes a writer of Cusk’s brilliance to pen all those revelations by being deeply tuned into one’s everyday interactions. Cusk writes with intelligence and wit – numerous passages reveal an author who has gone beyond narrating a story and made the reader stop and think, while you burst out laughing when hilarity shines through in other scenes. On some level, her writing reminds you on Italo Calvino – who made the seemingly mundane so thought provoking.
A difficult book to describe because there’s nothing and there’s everything – depending on what one deciphers as a reader. I might not do enough justice to Cusk’s masterpiece with my review, but I do hope you give it a read. A must-read if you appreciate cerebral books. Those looking for a straightforward storyline might be disappointed, because this book makes you pause to ponder at every step of the way. A short read but not a quick one.
Rating – 5/5
If you haven’t read anything from Rachel Cusk yet, I had written a feature on the author. Here’s the link for those who missed it.