2013, 352 p.
The problem with coming to a much-talked-about book after the wave of publicity and interest has broken is that there’s not really much else left to say about it. I’ve just dabbled in some of the reviews and it’s hard to get away from the fact that Kent received a very large advance for the novel; that she’s young and doing a PhD in creative writing, and that it has been translated into twenty languages. Ben Etherington has written an interesting piece in the Sydney Review of Books about the marketing context that has many links- well worth reading.
As probably everyone knows, the book is a ‘speculative biography’ of Agnes Magnusdottir, who was executed for murder in Iceland in 1829. Awaiting sentence, she is interned on a remote farm, where enforced proximity draws her into the circle of her keeper’s family.
Everything that I would want to say about the book has been said before. Reviewers speak of the historical setting, and I’ll talk about it too. Historical documents preface each of the chapters, that not only lend verisimilitude, but also act as a fence to constrain this speculative biography. The research is obviously deep, and its occasional didacticism can be excused when writing about such an unfamiliar historical setting. Just as in history-writing itself, the endpoint is known, and it’s the author’s task to make it plausible and real.
Many reviewers rave about her descriptions of settings, and I need to join with them in praise. Her descriptions of setting are so evocative that you can almost see it. It’s a very cinematic book, and of course it has been optioned for a movie. In your head you can see the opening scenes and hear the voice-over already.
I was struck in the opening pages by the story-ness of it. Of course, story-telling is one of the themes of the book, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was reading the sort of book I might have read as a teenager, where all the people and events were set out in place, then ‘action’- the story proper began. I still can’t decide whether it’s slightly clunky and old-fashioned, or very clever and self-reflexive. The device of the priest worked to usher in a first-person story-telling narrative, but I didn’t find myself particularly interested in him as a character.
And yes, several reviewers have squirmed under the buffeting of poetic imagery, and at times I felt rather overwhelmed by it as well. But then she’d capture an image in a couple of words so cleanly and sharply that you’d nod and forgive her everything. I enjoyed the viscerality of her descriptions as Agnes is released from her cell as she smells herself and the grunge of captivity. I felt the smoky fug of too many people in a small cottage that evoked shades of Halldor Laxness’ Independent People.
Then there’s the cover. Is it trite to talk about the cover? I don’t think so- it was part of my experience of settling down with a real-life, hold-in-the-hand book to read a bit more. You won’t detect it on screen, but the cover has a beautiful pearlescent sheen, inside and out, and I often found myself running my hand over it as a thing of beauty.
This book has already been read so many times under the Historical Fiction category in the Australian Women Writers Challenge that I feel a little redundant putting it under the 2015 reviews as well. Never mind. Two years on from its publication, it should be standing on its own two feet. It does.