ARANYAKA – Book Review

Title – Aranyaka

Authors –  Amruta Patil and Devdutt Pattanaik

Genre – graphic novel, mythology, history

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“From wind, she learned movement. From mountains, patience. From rivers, persistence. From outstretched branches and deep roots, she understood hunger.”

“Bad arguments were about ego and delusion, good arguments brought epiphany. All argument was combat.”

“I thought we were equals, bilateral symmetry of leaves. He thought we were halves – He above, Me below.”

Aranyaka literally translates to “of the forest”. It begins with the history of all living beings which started from the forest, and how domestication and civilization take us away from nature. The story is a warp and weft of 3 primary women – the Large, the Weaver and the Fig, (The three rishikas – Katyayani, Gargi and Maitreyi) who help us unravel humankind. Aranyaka is not only the forest around us, but also addresses the wilderness within us. Is food solely to satiate hunger, or is it a temporary replacement for a greater hunger/thirst in life? When we cook for or help or take care of others, is it in thought of the opposite person, or emphasizing our own importance in their lives?

A difficult book to review because it encapsulates a multitude of subjects and themes. Aranyaka alludes to a set of 3000-year old Vedic scriptures, and the foundational role forests play in Vedic lore.Writer Devdutt Pattanaik and illustrator Amruta Patil have imaginatively transformed a myriad of ideas into a novel – the crux of which is, observing elements and the natural world transforms the way humans think. Forests can be as violent as they are beautiful. In this sense, scriptures do not belong to a bygone era, but are right here with us.

The two artists have collaborated long distance – with Patil living in France, and Pattanaik in India. The tremendous research dedicated to the text reflects Pattanaik’s strength in his genre of mythology. There are numerous references suggested for further reading. Patil’s artwork is just beautiful – closely following the storyline, with a vibrant assortment of shades and tones. Some pages don’t need dialogue – the striking paintings take you through the multi-layered narrative.

A delightful book, worth having in ones collection – more for the artwork than the story.

My rating – 5/5

There’s Something About Christmas – Book Review

Title – There’s Something About Christmas

Author – Debbie Macomber

Genre – Fiction, humor, romance, seasonal, festive

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Emma Collins stopped celebrating Christmas the year her mother passed away. Christmas, for her, meant family and tradition and preparing cakes and sweets together, and it has failed to have the same meaning anymore. Emma works as a journalist with  ‘The Examiner’, a local newspaper for which she writes obituaries. The ‘Good Homemaking’ magazine had run a nationwide contest a month ago, for the best fruitcake recipe in the country – the winner of which would be announced on Christmas Day. Emma finds herself with a new job description – to interview the finalists of the fruitcake competition, and present a series of articles as a build-up to the Christmas season.

“Fruitcakes are like in-laws. They show up at the holidays. You have no idea who sent them, how old they are, or how long they’ll be hanging around your kitchen.”

“Fruitcake is about the ritual of a family recipe. The longer the ritual is repeated, the more it becomes part of the holidays.”

The reader is taken through Emma’s life in the weeks leading up to Christmas – her earnestness in making a name for herself as a journalist, a boss who doesn’t take her seriously, a colleague cum best friend and sole support system, her estrangement with her father, her mourning over her mother’s death. The author begins every chapter with quotes by real life chefs and bakers, on what fruitcakes symbolize to them. Emma’s journey as a journalist also comes across beautifully, as someone who documents the lives of others but personally feels she has hardly made a smudge on the page of her own life. Her aversion towards Christmas and the festive season shows us how not everyone celebrates festivals the same way, depending on what memories are attached to specific days/seasons. Her interviews with people from various walks of life reveal the stark differences in each finalist’s life story, along with the common bond they share through their love for baking. From an octogenarian widow to a young mother of four, Emma receives life lessons along with fruitcake lessons from an unassuming bunch of people.

“When I was with my husband, I felt there must be something lacking in me. Now I don’t think so anymore. Time will do that, you know?”

“I never could figure out people, but I know a whole lot about fruitcake.”

The more Emma goes over the notes of her meetings, the more she realizes that the interviews are not so much about fruitcake as much about the people themselves. “Lessons about life, wrapped up in a fruitcake recipe.” From traditional fruitcakes to personalized ingredients like chocolate or apples, and even no-bake recipes, Emma comes across a variety of methods to prepare the same product, which serves as a metaphor for life, in that, each of us lives our own journey. There are contestants who spent several years trying to bake the perfect fruitcake, only to realize that their life was what needed working on instead. Some divert from traditional recipes and use ingredients of their choice, serving the lesson of doing what you love and not following the herd. Others use the no-bake option because they want to “enjoy it now” – a lesson for living in the moment.

There are different fruitcake recipes provided in the book for the reader to try out. All-in-all, a sweet Christmas story that doesn’t succumb to clichés. Macomber writes with the right mix of humor and romance. Those who love baking and animals would enjoy this book. The epilogue was a tad drawn out and could have been done away with, but otherwise a cheery Christmas read that gets you into the festive spirit.

My rating – 3/5

The Ghost of Christmas Paws – Book Review

Title – The Ghost of Christmas Paws

Author – Mandy Morton

Genre – Fiction, crime, mystery

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“There are many types of civilization, depending on what you’re used to. Icy fog and torrential rain, punctuated by snow – though beautiful – had driven cats indoors,and brought life to a standstill.”

The No. 2 Feline Detective Agency is a series of books led by a feline detective duo. Hettie Bagshot and Tilly Jenkins are summoned to solve a case a few days before Christmas. The elderly Lady Eloise Crabstock-Singe lives in a manor off the Cornish coast, and believes her house is haunted by the ghost of a cat who wants to finish off the entire Singe family. Lady Eloise’s sister and brothers have already been brutally murdered by the hands of Christmas Paws, who shows up every Christmas Eve to wreck havoc on the Singe family. Eloise is the only surviving member, and is certain it’s her turn this Christmas and fears she has been brought to reckoning.

This cracking cat crime is an absolutely delightful and entertaining read for the Christmas season, populated by a world without people that cat lovers would certainly enjoy. All the characters are cats, and Mandy Morton has given each of them their own distinct character traits. Hetty and Tilly are named after the author’s own cats, and the other characters are based on her friends’ pets. Our protagonists are avid readers, and the book is peppered with literary references which are an absolute treat for book lovers. The word play is all animal-related – Santa Claws, Agatha Crispy, The Daily Snout, Cat of the Baskervilles, and the title itself being a take on Charles Dickens’ novel. A fun, feline read that is definitely recommended if you’re looking for something lighthearted and witty.

My rating – 3/5

In The Tall Grass – Book Review

Title – In The Tall Grass

Authors – Stephen King and Joe Hill

Genre – Horror

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The grass flows and you flow, too. Think of it as becoming one with nature.”

With Stephen King celebrating his 72nd birthday last weekend, and the movie releasing next week, it was apt to read this collaboration with his son, Joe Hill on this seemingly fun family holiday, which soon turns nightmarish. A pair of siblings on a long distance road trip, find themselves on a deserted strip of road parallel to a large field. Sounds of a child in distress emit from within the field. The boy doesn’t sound too far away, but it’s easy for a small kid to get lost in towering blades of grass. Within minutes of entering the field on their rescue mission, the brother-sister duo lose track of each other, feel disoriented in blades over seven feet tall, and get entangled even further in the verdant mass while trying to follow each other’s voices. Turns out there are more people similarly lost in the tall grass, and though they can hear each other, they can’t seem to find the owners of the voices. Directions and time melt in the grass. “There is no morning or night here, only eternal afternoon. If we had shadows, we might use them to move in the same direction”, reflects one of the characters. The grass has dew throughout the day and cannot be burned, new blades shoot up as soon as old ones are crushed under foot, and the “softly flowing ocean of green silk” appears to move even though the people are still, causing them to move without moving.

The father-son imagination of King-Hill elevates the horror to another level, and might not be suitable for all readers. Caution is recommended to those who get squeamish easily, as the story has a lot of gore. King is known for his detailed writing – the fun elements with a character who speaks in rhymes and another with a fondness for limericks, are easily interspersed with the brutality of its stomach churning moments. The protagonist/antagonist/lead character/side character, which ever way you see it, is the grass. And Stephen King proves once again why he is the king of horror, with his ability to find fear in the unlikeliest places/events. A disturbing read, but recommended for horror buffs.

My rating – 3.5/5

The Strange Library – Book Review

Title – The Strange Library

Author – Haruki Murakami

Original language – Japanese

English translator – Ted Goossen

Illustrator – Chip Kidd

Genre – Fantasy fiction

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“Ever since I was little, my mother had told me, if you don’t know something, go to the library and look it up.”

Like most of us who have grown up on books, our unnamed narrator decides to visit the town library to issue some tomes. But strange things happen at the strange library. In spite of reaching almost near closing hours, the librarian insists that he read the books there itself, since those particular books are for reference only and cannot be issued. The narrator follows the librarian to the “reading room” – a long-winding walk through a labyrinth of corridors in the basement, where he is promptly locked up and told he can’t leave until he finishes reading all the books the librarian has given him.

The only other presences in the reading room are a talking sheep and a mysterious girl who bring him three meals a day. On questioning his fellow captives, the duo reveal nobody ever leaves the reading room. Once they finish reading the books he has given them, the librarian cuts off their heads and eats their brain, thereby consuming all their knowledge.

A quirky story with dark undertones, that takes you into the surreal world Murakami is known for. Past and present merge, as do reality and fantasy. Perfectly quipped by the mysterious girl who turns transparent at night, “Just because I don’t exist in the sheep man’s world, it doesn’t mean that I don’t exist at all“, Murakami gets the reader to think about how real reality really is, and which world is fantasy when the two collide.

As the narrator laments, “All I did was go to the library to borrow some books“, it is not just the characters sucked into the nightmarish library, but the reader who is also drawn into the peculiar world of Haruki Murakami. The book is printed in typewriter font, giving it an old world charm. Chip Kidd’s illustrations are vivid and brilliantly carry the story along, with bright colors contrasting the dark theme. This one is sure to have book lovers thinking strangely about libraries and suspiciously about librarians by the end of the book.

My rating – 3/5 for the story, 5/5 for the illustrations

For A Rainy Afternoon – Book Review

Title – For A Rainy Afternoon

Author – R J Scott

Genre – LGBTQ fiction, novella

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“I was never happier than with my nose in a book, tea next to me, and maybe a couple of chocolate chip cookies on a plate. Add in rain against the window and I was in heaven.”

Robbie works at the post office in an idyllic English village. The post office houses a café and a reading area, where people meet to discuss and exchange books, while sipping tea and relishing cakes. An elderly lady, Maggie, who loved books and reading and baking, and had bought the building that houses the post office and café, passes away, bequeathing the entire property to Robbie, while the rest of her estate has been willed to Jason, an American writer. As far as the villagers know, Maggie never had any family and lived her whole life alone in the village.

At the center of the story is a collection of limited edition books by Monroe Kitchener that Maggie has addressed to Robbie. Over repeated attempts to recreate Maggie’s famed applesauce cake, Robbie tries to figure out why Maggie left her property to him. What connection does she have with Monroe Kitchener? And who is the American now living in her cottage? Are all these questions somehow inextricably linked to Maggie’s past that the villagers know nothing of? As the secret ingredients to the applesauce cake slowly reveal themselves, an ephemeral story from Maggie’s past also starts unravelling from over seven decades ago.

A pleasant story to read on a rainy day, with tea and baked treats – just like Maggie would have enjoyed it. The writing however doesn’t match up to the story and is a bit of a letdown with its lack of structure. The characters aren’t well sketched out, and with the exception of Maggie, we know nothing about anyone else. Too much print space is spent on Robbie and Jason, but without any real character development. The mystery of Maggie’s past, the story behind the books and their author Monroe Kitchener are all rushed through. All-in-all, an excellent story line that lacked in presentation. Recommended as a one-time read, but a better writer could have made this book a lot more memorable.

My rating – 2.5/5

Sam & Chester – Book Review

Title – Sam & Chester

Author – Jo Bailey

Genre – Non-fiction

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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.

My rating – 5/5

Eine Buchrezension – A Book Review of Miss Hamburg

The beauty of language is that it opens up so many new avenues of communication. We can talk to more people, watch movies and read books in their original form, learn about different cultures. This blog site features write-ups mostly in English to cater to a wider reader base. When I post in any other language, the English translation follows the original post. I started learning German a few months ago, and have been attempting to read books in the original language, on the recommendations of librarians. The past few weeks have been busy, and I just finished my Deutsch A1 exam yesterday. I’ve barely even scratched the surface of the vast expanse of German literature. Like every little drop adding to the ocean, we start with baby steps and gradually increase our strides towards bigger things.

This is a review of the book Miss Hamburg. I’m attempting to write in German (and the English translation will follow below).

Der Buchtitel – Miss Hamburg

Die Autoren – Theo Scherling und Elke Burger

Genre – Fiktion

Sprache – Deutsch

Ein Buch aus der Leo & Co. Serie – des Bücher über eine Kneipe. Leo is einen Maler und eine leidenschaftlicher Koch, und Besitzer der Kneipe “Leo & Co.” Unsere Protagonistin Anna ist eine Studentin, die Teilzeit in der Kneipe arbeitet. Anna liest eine Anzeige von einer Modelagentur und möchte mit einem professionellen Portfolio einsteigen. Ihre Freundin Veronika, Boss Leo und Oma Trude, zusammen mit dem Fotograf Kai helfen Anna dabei. Ihr anderer Freund Paco scheint es nicht glücklich, dass Anna mit dem Modeln anfängt. Das Buch führt uns durch die Reise diese Gruppe von Charakteren, die Anna bei ihrer Verwandlung von der Kellnerin zum Model unterstützen und im Miss Hamburg-Wettbewerb beenden. Nervenkitzel, Missverständnisse, Freundschaften, Familie – der Leser wird zussamen mit Anna.

Eine mittelmäßige und kurz Geschichte. Gut herausgeätzte Charaktere und eine interessante Übersicht, die von Klischees ferngehalten wird. Eine etwas ausgedehnte Erzählung hätte das Leseerlebnis verbessert. Das Buch wird von einer Audio-CD begleitet, die eine große Hilfe ist, um die Aussprache beim Erlernen einer neuen Sprache zu üben.

Empfehlenswert, wenn Sie Bücher mit einfachen Handlungssträngen mögen – aber ohne Klischees – die menschliche Gefühle berühren.

Bewertung – 3/5

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For English readers,

Title – Miss Hamburg

Authors – Theo Scherling and Elke Burger

Genre – Fiction

Language – German

A book from the Leo & Co. series – a number of books featuring various incidents surrounding a pub of the same name. Leo is a painter and passionate cook, who runs the pub “Leo and Co.” Our protagonist Anna is a student who works part-time at the pub. Anna chances upon an ad by a modelling agency, and wishes to enter by creating a professional portfolio. Her friend Veronika, boss Leo, and grandma Oma Trude, along with Kai the photographer, encourage and help Anna in the endeavor. Her other friend Paco doesn’t seem too keen on Anna taking up modelling. The book takes us through the journey of this motley group of characters as they assist Anna in her transformation from waitress to model, culminating in the Miss Hamburg contest. Thrills, apprehensions, misunderstandings, friendships, family – the reader is taken on a roller coaster along with Anna.

A mediocre story line, which I felt passed too swiftly. Well etched out characters, and an interesting synopsis that stay away from clichés. A little drawn out narration would have enhanced the reading experience and given us more time with each character and their role in Anna’s life. The book is accompanied by an audio CD, which is a great aid to practice pronunciations when learning a new language.

Recommended if you like books with simple story lines – but without clichés – that touch on human emotions.

My rating – 3/5

The Blind Owl – Book Review

Title – The Blind Owl

Original language – Persian/Farsi

Author – Sadegh Hedayat

English translation – D.P. Costello

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The year takes off with a literary bang! The first book of the year and what a treat it has been. In continuation with my Birthday Reading Goals of reading translated books from languages starting with each letter of the English alphabet, I had selected this literary masterpiece from Iran for Persian.

There are sores which slowly erode the mind in solitude like a kind of canker.” When a book opens with such haunting lines, you marvel at the author’s ability to keep the reader hooked from the start, and at the same time to not discourage one with its morose theme. According to folk lore, screech owls are considered to be harbingers of death. The Blind Owl is considered as one of the major literary works of the twentieth century, and is a story of romance as much as it can be seen as autobiographical. The story opens with an unnamed narrator – a painter of pen cases – who has confined himself to a room, as he lumbers about within its four walls thinking of death, and gives the reader glimpses into his murderous thoughts as he shares his writings with the shadow on the wall. “My shadow on the wall had become exactly like an owl and, leaning forward, read intently every word I wrote. He understood perfectly. Only he was capable of understanding.” The narrator considers only solitude and his shadow as friends, to the extent of believing his shadow to be more real than himself. “The shadow that I cast upon the wall was much denser and more distinct than my real body.” He is in poor health and is waiting to die, while remembering an unrequited love that brought him to this state. Or maybe his ill health caused his love to be unrequited in the first place. Who knows for sure? “Was not my room a coffin? This bed that was always unrolled, inviting me to sleep, was it not colder and darker than the grave?” Is he waiting for death, or considers himself dead already (as he often refers to himself as a living corpse)?  Who are the familiar faces he sees, and what are the experiences he remembers as already having experienced in another life?

The narrative spans different times and eras, but the writing is almost surreal and leaves you wondering whether you’re reading about the same person or different people. We know the unnamed narrator is sinking into despair after the death of a loved one, and his own worsening health. But which one was the cause and which one is the effect? “I would cut up her body, pack it in a suitcase, take it away with me to some place far, very far from people’s eyes.” The writing swirls with memories, dreams, nightmares, a gory past, a fearful future, a confusing present, leaving the reader to figure out what is actually happening and which parts are in the head of a madman. Sightings or hallucinations? Dreams or reality? “It seems as though I have forgotten how to talk to the people of this world, to living people” , writes the narrator. So can we, as readers, be sure of what he writes for us?

Hedayat seamlessly weaves the overlapping narratives, often reminiscent of Edgar Allen Poe’s morbid themes, but makes you read in awe as his writing, without for a moment, causes the book to appear sad. (The novel was originally banned in Iran with the reason that it made people suicidal.) He teases the reader with ironic lines from his narrator like, “How sick I am of well-constructed plots and brilliant writing!” But it is this very writing that makes this book so brilliant and a treat for literary enthusiasts. In spite of the narrator’s obsession with death, the lines are beautifully composed.

Death was murmuring his song in my ear like a stammering man who is obliged to repeat each word and who, when he has come to the end of a line, has to begin it afresh.”

It seemed a miracle to me that I had not dissolved in the bath like a lump of salt.”

The fact of dying is a fearful thing in itself but the consciousness that one is dead would be far worse.”

Some more beautifully constructed figures of speech:

It was more pleasant to sit in the dark, that dense liquid which permeates everything and every place.”

The sun, like a golden knife, was steadily paring away the edge of the shade beside the walls.”

The interlocking trees with their wry, twisted branches seemed in the darkness to be gripping one another by the hand for fear they should slip and crash to the ground.”

The night was departing on tip-toe. One felt that it had shed sufficient of its weariness to enable it to go its way.”

Several lines strike a chord of what haunts us as humans – fear of death, loss of time, soul searching, hope, random musings being universal themes.

I stood in front of the mirror and stared at my face. The reflection was unfamiliar to me. It was frightening.

What do days and months matter? Time has no meaning for one who is lying in the grave.”

If it were possible for my being to dissolve in one drop of ink, in one bar of music, in one ray of colored light…

Silence is a language which we do not understand.”

All my life has passed within four walls.” I read somewhere about Hedayat’s writing – it is meant to be an experience in itself, and not a book about an experience.The themes are dark, but the lyrical prose shines a light on what great writing truly is. The Blind Owl  was originally published in 1937 in Bombay (India), and only released in Hedayat’s native Iran in 1941. The novel was written when Hedayat was a student in Paris in 1930, and ironically, the French translation by Roger Lescot during WWII was what first brought it popularity. The English version by Costello (which I read) was published in 1957. Hedayat committed suicide at age forty-eight, following years of addiction and disillusionment. (He allocated money for his burial, closed up the doors and windows and turned on the gas in his apartment in the heart of Paris city, where The Blind Owl was written years ago.)

Another one of those books where a review cannot do sufficient justice. It needs to be read to be experienced. The book has been translated into numerous languages, and much gratitude needs to be expressed to the translators who make such wonderful literature accessible to readers everywhere.

My rating – 5/5

Burial Rites – Book Review

Title – Burial Rites

Author – Hannah Kent

Genre – Fictionalized biography

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Picture sourced from the internet. I read the e-book version.

“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.

My rating – 5/5