Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Stark, Vivid, Heart Rending Reads

Two books I have read in the past few months may strike some readers as bleak.

Yesterday I finished Burial Rites by Hannah Kent.

What do you think of convicted killers? How do you feel about public execution? How would you like a convicted killer who's been sentenced to death living with your family?

Agnes Magnussdottir knows death is coming for her. What she doesn't know is when.

Sentenced to death for taking part in the killing of two men at a remote farmstead in Iceland in 1828, Agnes is sent to live out her remaining days (the number of which has yet to be determined) with the family of a government official at the Kornsa farmstead. Kent's novel narrates the final months of Agnes' life: her conversations with the priest she has chosen to offer her spiritual guidance and the women who inhabit the same space and shape her last days.

Agnes feels that her voice, her story were not heard during the trial. As one of three people convicted for the bloody, vicious murder (along with a young woman and a male neighbor), she is desperate to be heard and understood. Her need to tell her story becomes even more urgent when she learns that officials are working toward eliminating the death penalty for the younger woman.

It is an intricately woven story, as vivid as it is stark in details of the landscape, the characters, the period, and the social situation. Kent's storytelling draws you in, gets you involved in the lives of these people. I began to wonder exactly for whom the burial rites were taking place: Agnes? The priest Toti? Margret? her daughters? the community? the reader?

Will Agnes be heard? Will the tale she tells, the confession she makes be enough to save her from meeting her death?

If you enjoy historic novels this will be right up your alley. It is a rich study of character, personality and spirit. There is much fodder in here for book club discussions as well. What an extra surprise to discover Kent's end notes that the novel is based on historical people and events!

The other story I read which also had somewhat bleak circumstances but rich, unforgettable characters is Amanda Coplin's The Orchardist.

Set at the turn of the twentieth century in Pacific Northwest, the novel is the story of William Talmadge--a solitary man with an apple and apricot orchard who tends not only his trees with gentle care, but also the two runaway girls who have escaped the horrors of the sex trade to seek refuge in his orchard.

The girls are scared, battered and pregnant. Slowly they learn to trust Talmadge. A kind of family forms until one day when a group of men appear in their orchard with guns and the shattering tragedy forces everyone to face the the ghosts and baggage they have been carrying all along.

I found Coplin's characters rich and complex. Once I started reading it was impossible to stop! It reminded me of Kent Haruf's Plainsong novels with the common thread being making family out of the people around you rather than relying on blood relatives to fulfill that role.

The Orchardist is also another period piece (historical fiction) which I have become a fan of. I admire the amount of research that both these authors did into the time and place of their settings. In both cases the environment and social setting are hugely important and in both novels these details are superbly executed.

While a colleague of mine felt Coplin's novel was depressing, I saw in it several moments of hope in the midst of bleak realities. I thoroughly enjoyed it and have recommended it to many people!

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