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Review: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

I read Burial Rites by Hannah Kent some time ago, in fact you may remember I was planning to take it on holiday with me. I read it by the ocean in Bar Harbour, Maine. We stayed in the beautiful Holbrook House B&B and the elegant guest lounge there saw me curled up with the enthralling Burial Rites for several hours at a time.

Holbrook House B&B, Bar Harbour, Maine

I first heard about Burial Rites from my husband’s Australian family. They live in Adelaide and have some loose connections to Hannah Kent. They were excited that an Australian author was making a splash in the UK, having seen posters for Burial Rites on the London Tube. I didn’t think too much more about it until browsing bookshops in May, planning my holiday reading list. I saw Burial Rites on one of the tables and picked it up. It described a novel set in Iceland in the early nineteenth century. Not what I was expecting at all. I have always been slightly fascinated by Icelandic sagas and the quotes on the blurb convinced me to take the plunge:

This compelling, ripped-from-real-life tale reminds me of Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace.

A story of swirling sagas, poetry, bitterness, claustrophobia…holds an exhilaration that borders on the sublime

As a huge fan of Alias Grace and Margaret Atwood in general; that mixed with Icelandic sagas meant that I just couldn’t resist. I originally bought it just as a Kindle e-book, but loved it so much it has since joined my library in paperback.

Burial Rites is the story of the last women executed in Iceland, Agnes Magnusdottir. It is bleak, thoughtful, perplexing and utterly addictive. The writing is spare and intriguing. The landscape is as much of a character as the people, something which I really enjoy, having grown up with the Brontes. The descriptions of the bleak valleys, the lonely coast and the cramped, damp Icelandic dwellings, badstofas, are well drawn and haunting. The portrayal of Agnus is also sophisticated. It is a character exploration of a flawed human being in flawed circumstances. In her end note, Kent explains how she first heard about Agnes in an exchange trip to Iceland as a student and how she was keen to deliver a more ambiguous interpretation of Agnes Magnusdottir than the traditional monster (hence the comparisons to Alias Grace, another ambiguous murderess). Kent’s love of Iceland and meticulous research makes this a very unusual book. Kent is a year younger than I am and her talent fills me with admiration. You need to read this!

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A New England holiday

Earlier this summer, I had the good fortune to spend a few weeks in America. We started in Boston and then made our way around New England, stopping in New Hampshire and Maine respectively. We had a wonderful time and met up with friends along the way (thank you to Katie for meeting us for lunch in Boston!). I thought I’d share a few highlights, literary and otherwise, with you here.

1. Louisa May Alcott’s house

I think that, whatever your nationality, Alcott’s classic Little Women has something to say to you. All my female friends name this as one of their favourite childhood books and, as we were planning our trip to the USA, I knew I couldn’t go to New England without seeing the house where Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women.

Orchard House, the home of the late Louisa May Alcott

Orchard House, home of the late Louisa May Alcott

Orchard House itself was fascinating, not only because the belongings and paintings of the family have been preserved, but also because these old clapboard New England houses are so different from anything in the UK. I was looking round with wonder at both the personal history and the architecture, marvelling at how a seemingly fragile wooden home could withstand the notoriously harsh New England winters. The intellectual curiosity, supportiveness and diligence of the Alcott family was very much in evidence, from the thoughtfully carved door frames (on an angle so they automatically shut behind someone entering the room) and Louisa’s handmade desk, to the encouragement of May’s (Louisa’s younger sister, the model for Amy in Little Women) art work on many surfaces around the home. We were shown round the house by a very knowledgeable guide who was very patient with all our questions! Towards the end of the tour, she pointed out a quilt on one of the beds, explaining that it is thought that the pattern may have been a coded message that this house was part of the underground railroad. Although this cannot, or rather has not, been proven beyond doubt, it did felt very much within the spirit of this home and the enlightened people that lived here.

2. Concord and Waldon Pond

After visiting Orchard House, we made our way into Concord. I was excited to see this historic small town and I was not disappointed. It was extremely quaint and we had a delicious lunch at the local deli cum restaurant. From there we drove a short distance to Waldon Pond. The weather was stunning and we walked round the lake slowly, taking in the scenery, listening to the gentle ‘twacks’ of swimmers in the water and examining the touching memorial to Thoreau’s cabin.

Waldon Pond

Waldon Pond

 

Thoreau's Cabin

Thoreau’s Cabin

3. Cape Cod

Sandwich, Cape Cod

Sandwich, Cape Cod

Many apologies if this is your home, but I just had to take a picture as it summed up the beautiful and serene Sandwich on Cape Cod. We spend an afternoon browsing in antique shops (fascinating for me as the goods and shops themselves are so different to antique shops in the UK) and taking in the beautiful scenery. I felt like I was on a film set all afternoon; it was such a perfect slice of New England.

4. Baseball

I was a little sceptical when my husband booked tickets to see the Boston Red Sox. I was imagining an atmosphere like a football match here in England, masculine, aggressive and not my cup of tea at all. I was very pleasantly surprised though and had a wonderful evening at Fenway Park. We indulged in hotdogs and pretzels, bought some genuine red socks for my Dad and brother (they were delighted with them!) ¬†and sang our hearts out to ‘Sweet Caroline’! Amazing!

Boston Red Sox vs Minnesota Twins, Fenway Park

Boston Red Sox vs Minnesota Twins, Fenway Park

5. The White Mountains

The scenery in New Hampshire was beautiful and very big; big sky, big trees, big everything. We took a historic train ride and the views were spectacular. To my surprise, this was probably my favourite part of our trip if forced to choose. Historic Boston, Salem and Concord had all been beautiful and fascinating and the Maine lobster couldn’t be beaten, but New Hampshire felt both more ‘real’ and good for my soul somehow, if that is not too fanciful!

View from the North Conway Historic Railroad

View from the North Conway Historic Railroad

6. The Big Chicken Barn

Whilst I went in to many great bookshops during our New England tour, the best undoubtably was The Big Chicken Barn just outside Ellsworth, Maine. A huge old chicken shed by the side of the road (mercifully no longer smelling of chickens!) had been converted into the biggest antique and secondhand bookshop I’ve ever seen. I could have spent a fortune and a week in there (in fact, I still spent a pretty long time in there – my husband went for a nap in the car whilst I fell down the book and antique rabbit hole!). In the end, I decided that I would only purchase things that I wouldn’t be able to find at home, and so came away with a companion to American Literature, a book from the 1930s on the history of quilting (the Alcott quilt inspired me!), some embroidered napkins, a pair of porcelain Spode candlesticks with a ‘Salem’ pattern, an old American cookery book and an American first edition of Christina Rossetti’s poems. As I struggled to the car with my purchases, my weary husband informed me that I was going to be in trouble when we went over our luggage allowance!

A few paragraphs can’t do justice to all the things we saw and learnt during our time in New England, but hopefully this has given you a flavour of the highlights and will maybe inspire a trip of your own!