Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent, Part 2 - The F2F Group Meeting

I've already written my review of Burial Rites by Hannah Kent, so this particular post will be limited to a description of our face-to-face group meeting. 

Recap of what Burial Rites is about:

Burial Rites is about Agnes Magnúsdóttir, a woman convicted of murder and awaiting execution.  Because there are no facilities for holding convicts in Iceland, Agnes is sent to a family farm where she helps with the housekeeping and chores but is still a prisoner, the frigid temperatures and geography enough to keep her from any escape attempt. 

As Agnus gets to know the family and is counseled by a priest named Tóti, whom she personally requested because of a long-ago encounter, her story is slowly revealed. Is she, or is she not a brutal murderer? Burial Rites takes place in Iceland in the 1820s and is based on a true story. 

I'm unfortunately terrible at coming up with group discussion questions, so we got off to a rocky start.  I'd hoped to be the quiet one, since my day was spent fighting a vicious migraine (and I was not entirely processing, thanks to aftereffects of the medication I took) but our Fearless Leader came rushing to the door with the words, "We're so glad you're here! None of us knows what to say about this one." Eeks.

I confessed I didn't know where to start, either.  Little Brown is apparently in the process of coming up with discussion questions but they were not ready in time for our meeting (I did ask).  Part of the problem when we attempted to discuss the book was that everyone liked it.  Even the people who couldn't make it to the meeting but emailed or told our group leader their thoughts all thought the book was excellent.

I've often said the worst-case scenario at a book group is, "Everyone loves it; nobody has much to say," and I hate it that I was proven right during the discussion of Burial Rites.  Still, we did manage to discuss a few things:

  • How difficult it was to read the opening, in which Agnes was imprisoned in a dark, cold place, chained and filthy (a couple of us wished we could reach in and hose her down).  
  • The oddness of the assistant priest chosen to save Agnes' soul and how she chose him because he was one of the few people who ever did anything kind for Agnes.
  • The extreme difficulty of Agnes' life.  One of our members reminded us that the book took place in 1828, when there were "house children and yard children".  
  • The fact that Agnes was abandoned by her mother, lived a life of servitude and thought that moving in with Natan (the murdered man, who misled Agnes into believing she was going to be the housekeeper, rather than one of the regular servants) would improve her lot in life.  
  • The second dress Agnes acquired, thanks to moving in with Natan. We were all a little mind-boggled at the concept of owning only a single dress (How do you ever wash your one dress?) and talked about how people used to wash seldom and smell awful.
  • Natan's cruelty to Agnes. 
  • The living conditions on a farm and the typical layout of an Icelandic croft house, the way they were covered in turf to keep out the elements and the design of the shared bedroom/living areas.
  • Sex in a shared room and whether Agnes chose to ignore the fact that Natan was sleeping with the other female servant or really didn't know.
  • The real circumstances of Natan's murder and whether Agnes' part in it could be considered "murder".
  • The fact that Agnes was not allowed to tell her side of the story at trial.
  • The setting of the book and how impossible it would have been for Agnes to escape.
  • The strange fact that because Agnes' death served as an example, an axe had to be purchased for her execution.
  • The kindness of the farmer's wife, everyone's favorite character.
  • How Agnes managed to sway her biggest skeptic in the farmhouse.
  • What Natan really did for a living and why the single male involved in the murder (three were accused, two convicted) had reason to be angry with Natan.
  • Those crazy Icelandic place names and how nice it would have been to have a map. There was no map in the ARC but there will be one in the finished copy.

Sounds like we discussed more topics than I realized, now that I've written it down, but we did go off on a lot of little tangents.  I think just having a list of things to discuss would have been helpful. I'll work harder at listing such things when I'm the one who suggested the title or provided copies of the book, in the future. 

The bottom line is that everyone loved the book.  We agreed that it was well-written and even surprising for such a young, first-time author and that we admired the beauty of her writing.  

I'd like to add that I'm very impressed with my group for managing to share the limited number of copies so nicely.  We only received 10 copies of Burial Rites - not enough for our rather large group -- but only one of the people who showed up for the meeting had not managed to read the book, yet.  When the lone person who hadn't read confessed that she hadn't managed to acquire a copy, one of our other members said, "Here, you can read mine," and shoved it down the table.  I love my reading group.  

Burial Rites is scheduled for release on Sept. 10, 2013.  

Copies of Burial Rites were provided to my F2F group by Little, Brown.  

©2013 Nancy Horner. All rights reserved. If you are reading this post at a site other than Bookfoolery  or its RSS feed, you are reading a stolen feed. Email bookfoolery@gmail.com for written permission to reproduce text or photos.


  1. My book club received copies of this, too and like you I check with Little Brown about a discussion guide. We had some of the same reactions, we all really enjoyed the book, which is great but can sometimes lead to limited discussion. We ended up picking out lines we really loved, because Hannah Kent's writing is so gorgeous and then we went on a Wikipedia spree because we were curious for a little more background on some of the history and characters. I didn't think about it until I got home, unfortunately, but Picador (the book's UK publisher) did have a group discussion guide that I found posted online, since it was released in the UK already. It sounds like you had quite a bit to talk about, I wish we had thought of some of your topics!

    1. What a fabulous idea, Shannon! I didn't even think about the fact that the book had already been released elsewhere (in spite of the fact that I used the Australian cover image, when I first posted). And, as to the lines . . . I had a few marked and I never did get around to mentioning them. What a super idea!

      Some of us had looked up bits and pieces of the history/architecture online, already, so we talked about what we'd learned. I would not have thought to look up info it together. Of course, I don't have a smart phone and I'm not sure about the others. At least one of our members avoids computers (which is hard for me to fathom).

      We did find quite a bit to talk about, but we kept getting distracted and I think a couple people just weren't in the mood to talk about the book, even though they enjoyed it. That happens. Fortunately, not very often. I don't think I can blame the book entirely; it was just one of those nights. :)


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