Australia vs. Sweden [Women's World Cup of Literature: First Round]
This match was judged by Rachel Crawford, graduate of the University of Rochester and former Open Letter intern. You can follow her rants online at @loveyourrac.
Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites is overall impressive. I try to avoid reading reviews before opening a book, and approaching it with an unbiased and fresh perspective. However, the plethora of reviews from The New York Times, Washington Post, and so forth, littered on both sides of both covers were unavoidable. In fact, they actually made it seem comparable to The Stranger––“compelling,” “gripping,” and other trigger words that imply “crime novel.” In fact, the novel does revolve around a bit of a mystery and a crime. Agnes Magnusdottir, whom Hannah Kent had researched extensively, was the last person to be publicly beheaded in Iceland, and Burial Rites is her story.
There are several notable aspects to be highlighted about that last bit. First, Hannah Kent, as you know is representing Australia and yet the novel takes place in Iceland. Burial Rites offers Iceland’s rich cultural history and takes place after the Treaty of Kiel (meaning, while it was still ruled by Denmark, but not Norway and not Sweden), a historical event I hadn’t known of until experiencing the novel. Second, the eloquent and yet bleak prose that I found to be near euphonious when read aloud––the beauty Kent portrays in the rapidly wilting hope for Agnes, is gently woven into the novel, her first novel. I might add, Hannah Kent is also under the age of thirty.
Yet, while the story of Agnes really is a fascinating tale, Kent’s imaginative ability isn’t eclipsed by the true events. The composition is clever, and the novel serves as a literary collage. Not only does Kent boldly write in the first person of the convicted woman, but she also writes in the third person (giving access to the family Agnes is housed with, the Assistant-Reverend, townspeople, and the District Commissioner), accenting with poems from the infamous Poet-Rosa, translated excerpts from the Supreme Court Trials, and even quotations from “The Icelandic Burial Hymn”.
I haven’t felt the kind of forlorn hopelessness in a novel since perhaps Dostoevsky’s Poor Folk. One forgets that Hannah Kent has no authorial control over Agnes’s fate, and yet our Agnes transcends to a fictional character through Kent’s pen. This looming despair is something that one who finds a home in Russian literature would find darkly familiar in Burial Rites. In the way that a setting’s harsh elements can often become like characters in a novel, the Icelandic winters are indicative of a grief that, like the snow-covered mountains, becomes nearly monochromatic.
The research and passion Kent has put into exposing Agnes empathetically makes Burial Rites a good enough competitor. The exposition, the beauty of countless diacritics dotting the pages, and a description of landscape that Whitman might have written had he resented it, are all bonuses.
James Patterson’s blurb on the cover of Camilla Läckberg’s The Stranger is initially a foreboding and disheartening start. The opening page is where I pull out a yellow card. Applying literary merit to a thriller doesn’t have to be a near impossibility, but The Stranger offers a particularly weak narrative and excessive, over-exuberant dialogue riddled with italicizations and exclamation marks (one of the devices attempted to evoke emotion). The backstories are rushed and vague. Fragments. Absent of literary purpose.
This all seems harsh, but when I begin reading a novel, I do so with the question in mind: There are many media that can serve to tell a story––why did this person chose to tell hers with language? Picasso’s Guernica is a good story. Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, a good story. Similarly, how did The Sound and the Fury revolutionize language––and doesn’t the Judas of literature, James Franco, understand that it cannot be translated to film?
What I’m getting at is the question we often ask: What makes a piece literature? Who decides what is canonical?
Well, Läckberg writes:
She loved the sight of her own blood. Loved the feeling of the knife, or a razor blade or whatever the fuck else she could find within reach that would cut away the anxiety that sat so firmly anchored in her chest . . . She also discovered that this was the only time [her parents] noticed her. The blood made them turn their attention to her and really see her.
I guess the answer to the question, why language, is lost on me here.
However, all is not lost on The Stranger. In fact, the novel may very well satiate the genre reader’s fixation of a different question, often more plot-based, begging: “What happens? What’s the point?” (Questions that hold as much weight with me as, “are the characters relatable?“––very little.) In its defense, The Stranger rather serves as a quintessential introduction to world literature to the Basic Reader in your life. For old Aunt Carol (assuming she can handle a few f-bombs), who perhaps seeks the page-turner for poolside, leisurely reading, The Stranger could be her portal out of the States. Perhaps a thriller with expectedly campy quips but dotted with umlauts and beautiful Swedish names is the gateway for this sort of audience. She might then add “the thriller” to the list of things she knows about Sweden––alongside wooden clogs, death metal, and vikings.
(This is no reprieve for Sweden, however.)
Next up, Australia’s Burial Rites will face off against either Toni Morrison’s Home (USA) or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah (Nigeria) on Thursday, June 25th.
Tomorrow’s match will be judged by Hannah Chute, and features Margaret Atwood’s Oryx & Crake (Canada) squaring off against Dubravka Ugresic’s The Ministry of Pain (Netherlands).