The Good People by Hannah Kent

Hannah Kent lic
The Australian Writer Hannah Kent

It is not all that long ago, 1994, that Frank Moorhouse’s Grand Days was disqualified from the Miles Franklin Award (Australia’s most prestigious literary prize because it was not Australian enough (he won the prize for its sequel Dark Palace (2000), which contains one scene set in Australia); apparently Australian literary sentiment has grown up since then, thank god – although the real problem lies from the rules of eligibility for the Prize . Here now is an Australian author, Hannah Kent, whose debut novel, Burial Rites (2013) was set in Iceland and now her second, The Good People, is set in Ireland: and still not a gum tree in sight. The only thing Australian about this book is its author; but that’s all that is needed, and rightly so, to herald Kent as a new, rising, and shining voice in Australian literature.

Kent paints time, place, and character through dialogue. The time is 1825 in rural, south-west Ireland where the Catholic Church is as powerful as ever but also where old Irish superstition and language is still rife and useful. All of this is established through how the characters talk: here a man comes to seek council from Nance Roche about his troubling dreams. Nance Roche is a wise woman who lives alone in a windowless, mud hut near the wood and who is said to have ‘the knowledge’.

 

‘Faith, what does it matter? I’d best be on my way.’

‘Sure, Peter, Go on home.’

He helped Nance to her feet and waited as she used the tongs to pluck a coal from the fire, dipping it, hissing, in her water bucket to cool. She dried the dead ember on her skirt, spat on the ground and passed it to him. ‘You’ll see no púca tonight. God save you on the road.’

Peter put it into his pocket with a curt nod. ‘Bless you, Nance Roche. You’re a good living woman, no matter what the new priest says.’

Here archaic English (“Faith, what does it matter?”), old Irish (púca means ghost) and Catholic salutation (”God save you on the road.”) all create the world of this novel: illustrative, complex, colourful, informative, and believable. The last because of Kent’s success at creating verisimilitude: the appearance of truth. You do not need to look up the meaning of púca; nor do you need to research the veracity of the use of the word ‘faith’ as an exultation in nineteenth century south-west rural Ireland; nor that the possession of a cool coal from the hearth of a bean feasa living in a mud-hut will soothe one’s dreams. As quickly as you read the lines the reader accepts this created truth because of the trust we readers place in the creator of such truth; when the real truth is that we are sitting in our reading chair scanning and finding shared meaning from little dark marks on a pale background. All hail our imagination and those that tickle it!

Kent has done her publisher proud: produced a novel with all the qualities of her first that prompted her global success and her publisher’s trust in her in the first place (it’s rumoured her earnings from rights, foreign publishers and the like, was $1 million); mid-nineteenth century far-western Europe in a valley of poverty, crime, women, faith, and fear, but with such differences that make it fresh and new, in tone, theme, crime, spine, and ending.

This is a story of three women: a new and bitter widow, Nora; a servant girl, Mary; and a feared and revered loner, Nance Roach; unwedded, unbedded, and therefore considered unworldly, but ironically, powerful despite the “fear of any woman who was not tethered to man or hearth.” In a society of family and neighbourily trust, tension and anger can boil quickly if livelihood is threatened: if cow’s milk is without butter, if a hen’s egg is yolk-less, or if a man falls suddenly dead, the inhabitants clutch at reasons, causes – be it four crows seen huddled together at a crossroads; lights seen bobbing on a fairy mound; or a cretinous child thrust on a widow who has no means to support it.

This is what happens to Nora whose motherless and afflicted grandchild is suddenly handed to her but who firmly believes it is the mischievous fairies, The Good People, who have taken her Micheál and left her one of their own. Her attempts to return the fairy to its own kind and see the safe return of her grandson is what propels the narrative to its tragic finale.

The belief systems, be it Christian or fairydom, give meaning to these ignorant people; the world is mysterious and explanations are needed for everything that ties them down, keeps them safe, or lifts them up. They need these causes of things to be certainties to allow them to get on with their poor and mundane lives; to keep planting their potatoes, milking their skinny cows, and harvesting turf to heat their hovels because their only other choice is to take to the road: the worst of outcomes.

Some readers have found the book depressing; yes, the story is sad, but the writing is evocative and succeeds is creating a vanished world, surreal almost, for the reader to get lost in so when the world of this valley is pushed into a civilized courtroom the reader too is confronted by the complexities and necessities of belief, survival, and what is true, good, and right.

I urge you to read this book. You can find it here.

Kill Your Darlings #26 July 2016

A little over one hundred years ago, in 1914 on a summer’s day in January, Sir Arthur Quiller Couch* gave a lecture at Cambridge University entitled On Style in an attempt to rail against superfluous ornamentation in literary works. The transcript was included in chapter 12 of his 1916 volume On the Art of Writing, in which he wrote,

“Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.”

In other words, be prepared to delete your most cherished bit for the greater good of the whole work. Be subjective! Be ruthless!

William Faulkner, in a letter, misremembered the quote and wrote, ‘kill your darlings’ which was repeated by Stephen King in his On Writing (2000), “kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings” and so it is this version of the quote that is the name of this handsome Australian literary journal about ‘culture, commentary, politics and society’. As you can see the covers are very distinctive: cleverly and beautifully illustrated and designed by Guy Shield.

It was founded in Melbourne, Australia, in 2010 and its editors, Rebecca Starford and Hannah Kent, should be very proud of their creation, which looks more like a paperback than a magazine. Rebecca Starford is the author of the very well received memoir, Bad Behaviour (2015), and Hannah Kent’s debut novel Burial Rites (2013) was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award.

A highlight in this volume, #26, is Lian Low’s account of growing up and not coming out in Malaysia: The Famous Five in Kuala Lumpur. Low has a wonderful twist on language and coming across one of her little verbal gems is like finding a lolly in the bottom of a packet you thought was empty. She made me laugh.

Have you heard of slow reading? which, apparently, is taking the world by (a slow) storm. Jerath Head writes amusingly, The Space of Hours, about a reading group diligently reading collectively in Brisbane’s Avid Reader Bookshop and Café, James Joyce’s terrifyingly difficult Finnegans Wake; his last. The Wakeans meet regularly and labour over two or three pages of Joyce for two hours and predict that they will finish the book in 2039. Red wine and conviviality ease the pain and bring out the joy. I loved this piece.

KYD’s interview editor, Gerard Elson, prints a transcript of a delightful interview with Anna Goldstein, the continuing translator of the latest literary and publicity-shy sensation, Elena Ferrante. The interview gives no clues to the writer’s true identity, if there is one, but Anna’s own story is well worth writing and reading about. However, towards the end of it I craved more of Goldstein and less of the interviewer.

There are fascinating articles on the joys of paper books and bookshops; academic forays into the psychology of the fangirl phenomenon; and a feminist take on the symbolism and sexism of Little Red Riding Hood.

Ashley Kalagian Blunt’s dispatch Postcards from North Korea was however a little disappointing. My expectations of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea are probably cliché ridden but I didn’t expect to have my expectations confirmed: you shouldn’t need to resort to gray writing to write about a gray place; quite the opposite is needed.

David Sornig’s short fiction, Sounds Like Low is a beguiling and sad story of a child’s innocence and misunderstanding leading to tragedy. However I had to get over a few editing bloopers in the first two pages. There is a difference between creative writing and bad grammar. Such mistakes, little though they may be, undermine a writer’s authority and good editing should not let that happen. “The men had watched as their car passed.” The possessive pronoun, ‘their’ doesn’t refer to the subject of the sentence but to the subject of the previous sentence. It makes you stop, “What? That doesn’t make sense.” A quick re-read will identify the error and discover the correct meaning. It’s a small thing but a reader shouldn’t have to stop and untie a knot: it should be clear.

Kill Your Darlings and its value-packed website are well worth investigating and apart from a few minor lapses of editorial diligence I highly recommend this journal. It’s encouraging that this publication has avoided the recent Australian government’s attacks on arts funding.

-oOo-

*Arthur Thomas Quiller Couch (1863-1944), [pseudonym “Q”], English author, poet, anthologist, and literary critic. He wrote many popular novels and essays and was a noted lecturer at Cambridge University. His legacy lives on in the grammar school system of Cornwall. With his vast number of short stories, Q has a dynamic range of style and creativity with tales of the supernatural, of Vikings, satires, historical fiction, romantic adventures, tales of heroic swashbuckling, mystery and crime fiction, and sea-going adventures; as well as books of literary reference, The Oxford Book of English Verse, 1250-1900 (1900), The Oxford Book Of Ballads (1911), On the Art of Writing (1916), On the Art of Reading (1920), and The Oxford Book of English Prose (1923). You can find most of his short and long form fiction here, where you can download them for free.

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Hannah Kent licHannah Kent

On January 12, 1830 in a poor rural community in northern Iceland, Agnes Magnúsdóttir, 34 years old, a farmhand, and Friðrik Sigurðsson, a farmer’s son were beheaded for the murder of two men almost two years earlier. For the months leading up to her execution Agnes was forced to live with a farming family who were extremely reluctant hosts but forced to do so by the farmer’s local administrative responsibilities. The executions were the last in Iceland, for in 1869 executions were outlawed in Iceland under Danish law.

In 2002 Hannah Kent was 17 years old and on a student exchange program, living and studying, in the north of Iceland. She arrived in January when the place was dominated by snow and darkness (for 20 hours a day). She was lonely, socially isolated on the edge of the world, and cold. On a trip around the region, obviously in a gap in the weather, she asked about local places of significance and she was directed to three small hills, white against white, where, her host parents said, a woman called Agnes was beheaded: the last execution in Iceland.

“I was immediately intrigued. What had she done? What had happened? … Retrospectively, I can only speculate that the strange, isolated place of Agnes’s death made me think of my own feelings of loneliness; that I thought of Agnes as a fellow outsider in a remote Icelandic community, and I identified with her in some small way.”

In January 2011 Hannah Kent had to face the task of writing an historical novel as the creative component of a PhD and her discovery of Agnes’s story nine years earlier sprang to mind.

Burial Rites is the result.

The thought of reading an Australian writer’s work with no gum trees (no tress at all actually), no kangaroos and no barbeques was too tantalising to resist. Kent uses two narrative frames: an uninvolved narration in the third person and a more poetic one in the first, as Agnes and so giving her a voice. The landscape, social and familial structures are revealed, not in dense descriptive paragraphs but as a background to the action. The arrival of Agnes at the lonely farm, her ostracisation, her predicament and demeanour are all skilfully drawn as is the family members of her reluctant jailers; and part of the charm of the situation is the slow growing understanding between the doomed woman and her hosts.

Of course the force that drives the plot is ‘did she or didn’t she’ and as the months of summer give way to the always harsh winter Agnes’s position improves and one thinks that the details of her background and crime will emerge in her religious counselling from a very young trainee clergyman, Toti (a rather wasted character). However this does not happen, instead Kent peppers the text with the story of Agnes and the eventual crime of which she is accused, through more poetic monologues from Agnes, part of the first-person narrative, and through dialogues by the fire with the mistress of the house, Margrit. This is a mistake on Kent’s part as she already has an impartial third person narrator that could faithfully serve as a means to dramatise the events rather than through a static duologue of two women sitting down before a fire in the dead of an Icelandic winter. Agnes’s first person narrative is intriguing and personalises the historical figure, which is exactly what a first-person narrative should do; but in the latter stages of the story, when we discover the romantic relationship between Agnes and one of the dead men, Kent’s re-imagining of this relationship descends into soap-opera of the ‘love him-hate him-love him’ kind. Such personal ruminations may be the musings of a lovelorn teenager but Agnes is mature, intelligent, and self-aware so notions of ‘if only I could talk to him I could change his mind,’ do not ring true.

These weaknesses in the text damage Kent’s novelistic authority but in relation to the work itself they are minor. Burial Rites is an imaginative, a mostly well-crafted debut with a wonderful evocation of period and life well within the Arctic Circle, and I look forward to her next work, which I believe will also be set in Iceland.

Burial Rites has won, among others, the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award People’s Choice Award, and for Kent she was named the 2014 Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Australian Novelist.

Kent co-founded and served as deputy editor of the Australian literary journal Kill Your Darlings. Burial Rites was released in Australia, the USA and the UK in 2013 and translation rights have been sold to 15 countries. In October this year she toured Canada as a guest of the Calgary’s Wordfest, the Vancouver Writer’s Festival and the International Festival of Authors in Toronto.

It was reported in 2013 two months after the book’s release that Jennifer Lawrence is scheduled to star, as Agnes, in the movie version of Burial Rites, directed by her Hunger Games director, Gary Ross.