“She’s Nothing Like Us”: Hannah Kent’s “Burial Rites”

burial-rites-hannah-kentAt what stage did Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites muscle out Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries from the Baileys Prize’s shortlist? The Booker-winning New Zealander was present and correct in the Baileys longlist, but those final six books, it seems, had room for only one murder mystery set in a remote nineteenth-century wilderness. That this slot went to Kent’s competent novel rather than Catton’s baggily inventive effort might say something about the new Orange.

I’ve already written about two of the Baileys contenders: Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland, also featured on the last Booker shortlist, was a sometimes moving, sometimes lumpy, always classy family saga potboiler; Eimear McBridge’s A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing, meanwhile, is astonishingly bold, a work both estranging and engaging which captures a voice and holds it in a unique, rarely writerly way. Kent’s entry feels to me to slip behind both these efforts, and yet it has already won several prizes and been shortlisted for many more. Indeed, there’s little doubt that Burial Rites packs a punch: it has an unerring sense of place and of atmosphere, and its Icelandic setting is convincingly, memorably rendered. It also has at its centre a potent figure: Agnes Magnúsdóttir, a woman convicted of the 1828 murder of a man named Nathan Ketilsson. She spends the entirety of the novel awaiting her execution, and it is in her voice that the novel comes so effectively alive.

Indeed, this is also the source of the novel’s greatest weakness: it is imbalanced. Agnes only narrates roughly a half of the novel; the rest of the story is told by an omniscient third-person narrator who skips between the supporting cast. Some of these characters – such as Margrét, the farmer’s wife who finds herself playing host to the condemned murderess – are relatively full-blooded, capable of challenging Agnes’s charisma; and others, such as Thorvadur Jónsson, the priest assigned to Agnes as her confessor, tread a relatively bloodless and predictable path, in his case from passive observer to slightly-less-passive participant. There is a sense that Kent’s inexperience – this is her first novel – has led to a hedging of the bets, and Burial Rites suffers every time she steps back from Agnes’s fiery, but not entirely inviting, voice. It’s hard not to compare this caution with McBride’s courage, and find for the latter: a single, uninterrupted, compelling voice, consistently and unsparingly rendered, might have made Burial Rites more of an invigorating prospect.

On the other hand, the deep winter of Iceland freezes the action – several times there are concerned conversations about the practical implications of the weather for the date of Agnes’s execution – and there is a cold calmness to an awful lot of Burial Rites which might not have been best-served by focusing on Agnes. Here, for instance, is the convicted murderer on her personal eschatology:

You will be lost. There is no final home, there is no burial, there is only a constant suffering, a thwarted journey that takes you everywhere with offering you a way home, for there is no home, there is only this cold island and your dark self spread thinly upon it until you take up the wind’s howl and mimic its loneliness you are not going home you are gone silence will claim you, suck your life down into its black waters and churn out stars that might remember you, but if they do they will not say, they will not say, and if no one will say your name you are forgotten I am forgotten. [pg. 321]

Here, meanwhile, is the confessor, rendered by that omniscient narrator, huddling in the Icelandic terrain, his thoughts reported to us:

Hunched against the smattering of rain and wind, Tóti inwardly chastised himself. What sort of man are you if you want to run at the sigh of damaged flesh? What sort of priest will you be if you cannot withstand the appearance of suffering? It had been a particularly vivid bruise upon her chin that had disturbed him the most. A ripe, yellow colour, like a dried egg yolk. Tóti wondered at the force that might have birthed it. [pg. 49]

You’ll hopefully perceive the differences here: the relative thinness, the sudden reliance on cliché, the more measured, familiar prosody of the third-person sections. Much of these parts of the novel pass by in extended dialogues, direct speech which whilst fairly well differentiated is also – again, dictated by that rigorous attachment to environment – mean and bitten-out. Here’s Margrét in conversation with a friend about the more wayward of her two daughters: “Is Steina making up stories again?” “Only the good Lord knows. I don’t remember. Actually, I’m a bit worried about her. She smiles at Agnes.” [pg. 117]   This sort of thing does the job, but it doesn’t set pulses racing.

What it does do, however, is emphasise the centrality of Agnes: how people react to her, how she sparks questions in their minds, how the force of her charisma knocks widely accepted verities out of joint. Margrét begins the novel entirely hostile to her guest – “What sort of woman kills men?” she asks, on behalf of her entire community [p. 51]. By the end of the novel, inevitably, she is telling Agnes that, “You are not a monster” [pg. 323]. Agnes is aware what people will think when they hear her story: “They will see the whore, the madwoman, the murderess, the female dripping blood into the grass and laughing with her mouth choked with dirt” [pg. 29]. Over the length of the work, however, Kent naturally paints a more complicated picture – a woman abandoned by her family, sent working as an itinerant house-servant, falling in with Ketilsson, a man who abuses her and all the women around him, and who becomes the focus of a plot by others to exact revenge upon him. Kent has protested against suggestions that she is anachronistically crafting a proto-feminist icon out of Agnes; I think she does so fairly, since Agnes has none of the agency associated with those kinds of effort – she is trapped by the system, literally her fate is sealed by it from the moment we first meet her. Nevertheless, Burial Rites is a story of understanding, an exercise in excavation: “I am a woman,” Agnes tells us, “not a book”, and Kent is engaged in imagining a life for a woman who is often simply a name on a commemorative plaque.

Thus again we come to the difficult issue of why, then, Agnes does not narrate the whole novel: in part, perhaps, so that her effect on others can be demonstrated (“how other people think of you determines who you are” [pg. 108]). In this case, however, why third-person omniscient and not several other first-persons? It is not as if the environment of Iceland could not be painted in the same way: “Autumn fell upon the valley like a gasp” [pg. 198] might be the kind of literary bon mot that pokes out of Kent’s prose a little too sharply, but it could be fashioned into Tóti’s voice just as well. I am criticising a novelist here for not writing the book I wanted to read, and in that I walk over – ho ho – thin ice. But I’m trying to indicate the way in which Burial Rites is simultaneously exciting and familiar, vivid and pedestrian. It captures the imagination, but doesn’t do a great deal with its hostage. It might be optioned as a film to star Jennifer Lawrence, but never once extends the effect of Agnes on those who surround her to its readers – by altering our conceptions of what a novel might look like. In eschewing Catton for Kent, then, the Baileys Prize has, like Burial Rites itself, played things safe.

 

“The Will of Fate, and the Fated Will”: Lahiri, Catton and the Booker

The Lowland by Jhumpa LahiriIn his 2007 history India After Gandhi, Ramachandra Guha wrote of the militant Indian Maoists who emerged from the conflagration at Naxalbari in 1967: “‘Naxalite’ became shorthand for ‘revolutionary’, a term evoking romance and enchantment at one end of the political spectrum, and distaste and derision at the other.” [pg. 423] In her new novel The Lowland, shortlisted for this year’s Booker Prize, Jhumpa Lahiri plays with precisely these reactions, positing a long tail of consequences whipping outwards from a single Naxalite’s decision to fuse ideological fervour with murderous deeds.

The novel begins with Subhash and Udayan, two brothers living in the Kolkata suburb of Tollygunge during the 1950s. Subhash, the elder by a scant fifteen months, is cautious and prone to hesitation; Udayan “was blind to self-constraints, like an animal incapable of perceiving certain colours” [pg. 11]. Despite their differences, the boys are as inseparable as the twin pools wallowing in the topographical hollow of the title: “After the monsoon the ponds would rise so that the embankment built between them could not be seen. The lowland also filled with rain, three or four feet deep, the water remaining for a portion of the year.” [pg. 1] This governing metaphor emphasises not just the occasional indistinguishability of the brothers, but also how the consequences of events have a habit of squatting in our lives long after their initial happening: like water with nowhere to drain away, history lingers in the lives of each of Lahiri’s characters, turning brackish and stagnant.

The first section of The Lowand is consequently bulging with Cliff Notes history, context shoe-horned into a smaller story because without it the personal, soapy tragedies which proceed from Udayan’s inevitable radicalisation make no sense. “It was one of a string of villages in the Darjeeling district,” Lahiri writes of Naxalbari, “a narrow corridor at the northern tip of West Bengal. Tucked into the foothills of the Himalaya’s, nearly four hundred miles from Calcutta, closer to Tibet than Tollygunge.” [pg. 20] We get thumbnails of American history, too, since as Udayan becomes ever closer to his Communist friends, Subhash attends college in the USA. We read of India and of Udayan at arm’s length during this stretch of the novel (difficult because Indian news is not something one will “come across in any newspaper in Rhode Island” [pg. 87]), and Subhash returns to Tollygunge only on the news that his brother is dead, shot by soldiers who have homed in on his Naxalite activities.

Subhash’s life is transformed. Not only has he lost the brother who formed his other half; he feels obliged to marry Udayan’s pregnant wife, Gauri. Yet the only love affair Subhash has undertaken in the US has been desultory and practiced, involving “a woman whose company he was growing used to, but whom, perhaps due to his own ambivalence, he didn’t love” [pg. 77]. According to Subhash’s mother, meanwhile, Gauri has no material instinct or aptitude. We think at first this is spite, but learn as the novel proceeds in elliptic fashion that it is a judgement more or less fair. Indeed, Lahiri eschews the tumescent context of her first hundred pages once Gauri joins Subhash in the USA, dropping us into strings of vignettes separated by often large – and important – chunks of time. Gauri develops a love of academia and philosophy, attending lectures on the quiet; Subhash turns his studies into a career; and the daughter they pretend is his rather than Udayan’s develops a personality at a rapid clip (by the close of the novel she is in her forties).

Lahiri intends to write a family epic alert to the irony of unintended consequences – for her senior college thesis, Bela (long since abandoned by Gauri, now a college professor, and living an itinerant lifestyle with which Subhash is uncomfortable) chooses to study “the adverse effects of pesticide runoff in a local river” [pg. 221], encouraging the reader to recall those pools of water in which, we learn, Udayan attempted to hide before the soldiers found him. All of this has a certain piquancy, and the sad, stilted lives of the main characters do have the power to move: alone and adrift, for instance, Subhash feels “that this arbitrary place, where he’d landed and made his life, was not his” [pg. 253], and we feel for a man at sea in his own cast-off-course life, “linked”, like Gauri, “into a chain she could not see” [pg. 292]. But there’s also an obstinacy to The Lowland – all that insistent commentary, crystalline-but-crafted sentences, and punished protagonists (Gauri’s desolation, in particular, feels simply unfair) – which lends it an air of inflexibility. The Indian sections have a nice ambivalence – at one moment “the sour, septic smell” of Tollygunge [pg. 89], at another the “gestures of hospitality from shopkeepers” [pg. 113] – but, in the way of We Need New Names, the prism of America over-directs the novel’s light away from this valence of detail.

The Luminaries by Eleanor CattonDetail is not something lacking in Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, however. At 832 pages, it is by far the largest book on this year’s shortlist – which might be the reason that I’ve left it last to review. More than any other of its competitors, Catton’s novel is interested in capturing the sense of a single place – not evoking a milieu we view from a more familiar one (Bulawayo, Lahiri, Ozeki), not abandoning specifity (Crace), and not being so fiercely concise that all but the most essential details are pruned away (Tóibín). Catton’s 1860s New Zealand goldrush town of Hokitika emerges as a pungent presence, mapped and – aha – mined thoroughly in the course of what becomes a compendious tour. But what is remarkable – and a little thrilling – about all this detail is that the novel conspires to make it entirely irrelevant.

At yesterday’s Booker Prize shortlist event in Cheltenham, Catton discussed the dual meaning of ‘fortune’: the prospectors of Hokitiki are in search of riches, of course; but fortunes are told as well as found, and in this way The Luminaries – its title, too, offering a dual reference, to the novel’s cast of Hokitika’s leading lights but also to the celestial bodies around which Catton structures her action – considers determinism and destiny. Its first of twelve parts – we note the allusion to the Zodiac – is itself novel-length, introducing us to (again) a dozen characters who are each in some way implicated by circumstance in the death and possible murder of a rich prospector named Crosbie Wells. In the discursive style of the nineteenth-century novels which are read by the characters themselves, Catton introduces us to the most intimate aspects of each man’s self-image. New arrival Walter Moody “had studied his own reflection mutely, and, in a way, knew himself from the outside best” [pg. 4]; shipping magnate Thomas Balfour “liked very much to feel that he was at the vanguard of an era” [pg. 12]; cleric Cowell Devlin “spent the present moment in a state of constant visualisation, conjuring in his mind the untroubled future self he had determined that he would one day become” [pg. 87]. We come to know these characters entirely, and often through the medium of gloriously witty pen portraits.

But Catton’s story lies elsewhere, in a string of coincidences involving none of the characters who feature in this hefty first part – and who consequently never develop from those initial thumbnails. Significantly given the centrality of the moon to the novel’s vision of ‘fortune’, it is two women who emerge in the book’s second half as the engines of the story: the Hokitika prostitute Anna Wetherell and the scheming villainess first introduced to us as Crosbie’s estranged wife, Lydia Wells. That the tart-with-the-heart and the scheming adulteress are both wearied and wearying types is part of Catton’s project. Individuals are not the drivers of this novel’s action. At one point, Balfour’s main client, and a man himself inextricably linked with the vengeful Lydia, opines that, “Only a weak mind puts faith in coincidence” [pg. 63], but in fact life in The Luminaries is governed by it. Characters act not in relation to their painstakingly-rationalised self-perceptions, but to their star signs or schematic roles in the narrative (the corrupted chemist, the tragic Chinaman); stories have less a beginning, a middle and an end, and more a series of intersections between random events which can build accidentally into denouements; and, as the novel’s twelve parts reduce in length by a mathematical ratio, and the chapter summaries which commence each segment grow ever more rococo in inverse proportion to the wordcount of the chapters themselves, Catton plays with narrative, subverting the certainties and assumptions of precisely the nineteenth-century realism she pretends to ape.

The Luminaries is interested in the way in which the sense of self which novels impose upon us, that bourgeois conception of the individual as an independent agent making choices which forge destinies in the way of Lahiri’s brothers, might not capture the way in which the world really works. Anna is in love with Emery Staines, the richest prospector in Hokitika, a young man who disappeared on the same night Crosbie Wells died and on which Anna herself collapsed in the street; they were born, she finds, on the same day at the same time of the same year, and this seems to give them an uncanny connection, in which one feels the emotions of the other, or can forge their signature without discernible discrepancy. In this context, Staines’s individuality is not important – indeed, the way he intersects with other people and events is the real root of his character, and self-presentation or -perception merely a gloss. “Emery Staines knew very well that he created a singular impression in the minds of all those whom he met. This knowledge had become, over time, an expectation, as a consequence of which, his singularity had become even more pronounced.” [pg. 732] That is, the self is simply self-fulfilling prophecy.

Whether this radicalism is contained in a package effectively executed is a slightly different question; Catton is attempting to interrogate the novel using a novel, and this perhaps inevitably leads to a bagginess, at times even an awkwardness: all that detail, all those words, can come to feel recursive. There’s an extent to which Catton’s concept – perhaps fittingly – overtakes her material, and The Luminaries can feel stretched as a result. Indeed, I wonder if, at the other end of this shortlist’s spectrum, Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary isn’t both just as radical and significantly more disciplined and artful. If The Luminaries is certainly extremely clever, the Tóibín might also be articulate. One of these two should certainly win the prize (I’d probably plump for The Testament of Mary myself), but I wonder if Jim Crace’s reputedly final novel, the elegiac-if-inexact Harvest, might not be awarded the Jacobson-Barnes Award for Life-Time Achievement. The stars will reveal their alignment on Tuesday.