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Novel Ideas, September 2013

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Posted: Monday, September 23, 2013 1:27 pm | Updated: 1:39 pm, Mon Sep 23, 2013.

Novel Based on Last Execution in Iceland

As a teenager, Hannah Kent visited Iceland and became intrigued with stories she heard about Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last person executed in Iceland. Agnes and her accused accomplice were charged with the bludgeoning of two men in 1828 on a remote farm, the home was then burned to the ground.

In “Burial Rites,” Kent, a gifted new novelist, whose phrases spring as if from a poet’s pen, imagines the final months of Agnes’s life. The result is atmospheric and engrossing. With the skill of a surgeon, the author extracts Agnes’s story bit by bit revealing her solitary, tragic life, and the sordid details leading up to the night of blood and gore.

Kent uses a rather pathetic creature as Agnes’ sounding board, the inexperienced, yet kind-hearted Assistant Reverend Tóti, whom Agnes has requested as her spiritual adviser. Tóti initially feels incapable of such responsibility, but he steels himself and goes to see Agnes at the farm where she is sent to await execution.

As the two continue to meet, Agnes begins to trust Tóti and look forward to his visits, as does the reverend. Rather than spouting scripture and forcing redemption on Agnes, he befriends her, which appalls his superior.

Badly in need of comfort and care, Agnes also finds solace in Margrét, a mother figure of sorts. The hardworking, yet gravely ill woman, owns and works the farm with her husband Jón, and their two daughters. Before Margrét can call up any compassion for Agnes, she has to adjust to housing a murderess—an arrangement mandated by the District Commissioner, one of many males in the book deficient in character and morals.

Agnes is the strength in this novel, and though she’s sinewy, she’s been weak when it comes to love because she wants it so badly. It’s this chink in her armor that launches her painstaking walk to the block. Readers will journey with her, hoping for a different ending, all the all while knowing that history must play itself out.

In Hannah Kent’s hands it does so with grace, eloquence and sadness.

* * * * * * * * * * *

The Best Yet from One of Missouri’s Own

It’s rare to highlight line after line in a book until an entire novel bleeds red, but you’ll do just that with “The Maid’s Version,” and finish Daniel Woodrell’s pocket-sized, literary new novel dumbstruck at the talent of this Missouri author.

Woodrell writes about ugly stuff with gritty style. His gut-punching prose, with lift-off-the-page quotes, will leave readers aghast at the way he can turn a phrase and write such lengthy power-packed sentences.

Best known for “Winter’s Bone,” a book-turned-film that garnered Academy Award nominations, Woodrell has written his best yet with “The Maid’s Version,” loosely based on the true story of the 1929 Arbor Dance Hall Explosion in West Plains, “an explosion that happened within a shout.” Dancers perished “in an instant, waltzing couples murdered midstep, blown toward the clouds in a pink mist chased by towering flames…”

Twelve-year-old Alex is the book’s narrator, a boy sent to the fictitious town of West Table to spend summers with his grandmother, “a lonely, old and proud” woman “who might loose a slap if addressed as Granny.” Alma is the “maid” in the book’s title, and in the summer of 1965, when Alex comes to visit she reveals suspicions about who she believes is responsible for the explosion, an event that took her beloved sister Ruby’s life.

Ruby is a far cry different than plain, plodding Alma “a twang stretching every word” she says. To feed her boys, Alma takes a job as a maid for one of West Table’s city fathers, a businessman with a fat bankroll, and a wandering eye.

Mr. Arthur Glencross uses Alma as a messenger to set up meetings between him and Ruby, a waitress with henna hair who “flirted readily with about any presentable man just to make time fly or snag a fatter tip…”

Naturally there’s a reason for Ruby’s promiscuity, and family backgrounds and secrets are laid bare. Tucked in between their stories are entries about innocents who perished in the explosion, creating yet more sympathy for those killed, or left to live out their lives maimed by what Alma believes was an incident sparked by the revenge of a love-crazed fool.

This compact masterpiece begs to be reread so every kernel of its country prose can be digested. Woodrell made a name for himself with “Winter’s Bone,” and he’ll set the literary world reeling again with his newest offering.

Readers can meet Woodrell on September 30th at 7 p.m. at St. Louis County Library Headquarters, 1640 Lindberg Blvd.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Family Saga, Eloquent and Heartfelt

Born in Calcutta just after World War II, the Indian brothers are only 15 months apart and look almost identical. But that is where their similarities end. Subhash, only 13 when we’re introduced to him in “The Lowland,” is a rule-follower, “placid” and “cautious.” Udayan, the younger of the two is daring, questions authority, and though he’s more difficult to raise, retains special “favor” with his parents.

In her eloquent new novel following “The Namesake,” and “Interpreter of Maladies,” a collection of stories that earned Jhumpa Lahiri the Pulitzer Prize, the Indian writer returns to a familiar theme—the difficulty of adjusting to a new culture, while retaining ties with your family and honoring their customs.

Highly intelligent and compatible, Subhash and Udayan are inseparable until their early post-college years when politics drive a wedge between them. Udayan has radical left-wing beliefs. He feels an “imported ideology” like Mao’s in China, could solve India’s problems, and he becomes involved in dangerous, subversive activities connected with a new Indian Communist party. Subhash notes the change and worries that Udayan’s radical actions will endanger their parents.

Wishing to further his education, Subhash is accepted into a Ph.D program in Rhode Island…“to take a step Udayan never would…and yet the motivation had not prepared him…here in this place surrounded by the sea, he was drifting far from his point of origin.”

Udayan also is undergoing change, as Subhash discovers when he receives his letters. Udayan has taken a wife, ignored the Indian custom of an arranged marriage, something “Chairman Mao” wouldn’t accept so why should he. Udayan continues with his radical activities and tragedy strikes, forcing Subhash to return to India where he meets someone who will impact his life ever after.

Subhash continually tries to do what is right, taking on the responsibility of another because of his goodness, only to have his efforts backfire. Despite setbacks, Subhash perseveres. He’s a noble and admirable character, a true “everyman” hero in a novel that crosses cultural and societal boundaries.

“The Lowland” is the story of a family, one generation following another, a family that could have its roots in any country. It’s a rewarding read, simply and beautifully written, from front page to last.

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