Wednesday, September 11, 2013

An Icelandic Woman Condemned to Death Awaits Her Execution at a Family Farmhouse in Hannah Kent's Burial Rites, Who Appears with Kathleen Kent at Boswell on Thursday, September 26, 7 pm.

When I read a novel, a lot of things are going through my head.What did the author set out to do? Where was he coming from? Was she successful?

I think of this as more of an intellectual exercise. How do language, character, plot, and theme come together to form the book? Was one aspect emphasized over the others. A novel that focuses too much on language might feel impenetrable to some. A character-driven novel might lag, while too much emphasis on theme might come off heavy handed. A book that's too heavily plot driven might appear disposable. It's definitely a blanacing act.

You might think that I am overthinking this but I assure you that every step of the way, folks in publishing, from agents to editors to buyers are contemplating this balance, though they may be a bit more subconscious than having an excel spreadsheet in their heads. And just like me, every reader along the way is not just saying "do I love this book?" but "do I know someone else who would love this book too?"

Early on, I could see everything coming together for Hannah Kent's Burial Rites. The book was agented by Dan Lazar and picked up by Judy Clain at Little, Brown, both folks with strong track records of gauging that sweet spot of literary fiction with commercial viability, or is commercial books that are literary enough to warrant critical notice and the enthusiasm of tastemakers.

Hachette (Little, Brown's parent) tends to be good at getting lots of reads in house, and they use those early readings to gauge which books become focus titles. And it doesn't have to always be because the advance warranted it--Maria Semple noted on her recent tour that Where'd You Go, Bernadette? was sold to them after her first novel didn't perform, so it took a lot of guts to go against the numbers and make it work.

They sent author Hannah Kent (photo credit Nicholas Purcell) on an early meet-the-booksellers tour, a practice that has picked up steam in the last 10-15 years. When we go to these events, we are much likely to read the book, but this is only really going to work if we actually connect with the book. After those dinners, the quotes started coming in, and I talked to some of the booksellers, and there was genuine enthusiasm. It's the range of booksellers that makes a difference--different ages, men and women, different kinds of stores.

So I read Burial Rites early too, and started passing it around. And needless to say, the enthusiasm was over the top! The novel is the #1 Indie Next Pick for September, and at Boswell itself, it has four big fans.

From Boswellian Anne McMahon:
"The harsh Icelandic setting is a perfect companion for the spare story of Agnes, a convicted murderess and the reluctant family that has enforced custody of her as she awaits execution. The story is wrenching, the writing is beautiful. There were sentences and phrases so perfect that they stopped me in my tracks. Not to be missed."

From Boswellian Jannis Mindel:
"Based on real life events, Agnes Magnusdottir stands accused of the brutal murder of her master Natan Ketilsson in Iceland in 1829. While awaiting her execution she is placed with Jon and Margret Jonsson and their daughters on their farm. At first the family is fearful but as they learn her story much of their fear falls away. Agnes has chosen a young priest, Thorvardur, as her spiritual advisor and like the Jonsson family, we learn about Agnes' life through her meetings with the priest. Hannah Kent has written a well-researched, fascinating, and multilayered story that perfectly reflects the icy climate of Iceland with stark writing and original source documents. This is first rate historical fiction at its best."

And from me (that's Daniel Goldin, if you're quoting out of context):
"In a small farming town in Iceland (then a province of Denmark), a young woman has been condemned to death for the murder of two men, one of whom was her master. Instead of imprisoning her, they put Agnes in the charge of a farming family, Jon and Margrét and their two daughters. And of course they assign a minister, Reverend Thorvador Jónsson (known as Tóti), to bring her to Jesus and accept her fate. But her story is a little more complicated, and as she tells her story to the reverend and the family, sympathies start to shift. Was the victim, Natal Ketilsson a victim or a monster? How do her accomplices, Fridrik and Sigga, figure into the crime? And how trustworthy is Agnes as a narrator anyway? Based on true life events, Burial Rites offers that heady combination of emotions that are stirred by crimes of passion, sophisticated enough to keep you guessing and argue out the moral complications, reminding me of the work of Anita Shreve, only with exotic accent marks on the names."

We also got a great read from Jane Glaser, who has been talking to me about it quite a bit. Whereas Anne immediately thought of Geraldine Brooks as a comparison, Jane immediately thought of Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace. Of course since the last three Atwood novels have been speculative, it's hard for me to remember that she's also played with the historical genre.

One should note that Geraldine Brooks has most definitely had an influence on Hannah Kent. She's thanked in the acknowledgements and offered this recommendation, which Little, Brown is using on the jacket: "An original new voice, with a deep and lovely grasp of language and story."

And speaking of genre, I should note that one of the things I loved about Burial Rites was the way Hannah Kent played with genre. You know it's a historical going into it, but you can't help reading it like a literary thriller. And as such, you wind up rooting for Agnes to win, as heroines do in such stories. "Get her acquitted!", I shouted to our shelf of legal thrillers. But Burial Rites is almost the anti-thriller. It's a different set of emotions, for sure, but no less powerful. (Note: Skazana is the Polish edition. Buy Hannah Kent in Polish here.)

I should note that we are hosting Hannah Kent on Thursday, September 26, 7 pm, along with another fine historical writer, Kathleen Kent (no relation to their knowledge, just friends) Kathleen Kent (photo credit Remi David) made her mark with The Heretic's Daughter, followed up by The Traitor's Wife (also known as The Wolves of Andover). Her new novel is The Outcasts, and if Burial Rites is the anti-thriller thriller, then The Outcasts is the anti-western western. Because Hannah Kent is unknown, and because we have so many recs on the book, we are putting Burial Rites, as well as The Outcasts, on the Boswell's Best through the event.

One last note. I'm always fascinated by book jacket changes, and a bit through the selling process, Hannah Kent's Burial Rites had an interesting change. It wasn't a full-blown jacket redesign, but a change of color tone to the existing jacket, which was formerly brown and now became blue. I think it was to make the color pop a little, and blue still connotes cold, though I usually think of that sky blue instead of this tone that has a slightly greener hue. I'm not sure, but I think the color is Maya blue, and I only say that because there's the new Paperblanks journals come in this exact color, and the line is called "filigree", which is one of the Icelandic crafts that is discussed in Burial Rites. I think it was meant to be.

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