Devotion- Hannah Kent (Picador 2022)

That’s 3 out of 3 novels I’ve read now by Australian author Hannah Kent, a prospect I’d so anticipated that I highlighted this new title in my “Looking Back, Looking Forward” post.

Her 2013 debut “Burial Rites” recreated nineteenth century Iceland, incorporating Icelandic sagas into the narrative and a use of documents and reports which really impressed me but I gave the slight edge to 2017’s “The Good People” set in a nineteenth century Irish village entrenched with folklore and fairies in a dark, foreboding read.  It’s three good four star reads in a row as far as I am concerned but maybe if forced to rank them “Devotion” would be at number three.

We are still in the nineteenth century but we begin in Kay, a Prussian village and a small community of Old Lutherans facing persecution for their beliefs.  Amongst them is narrator Hanne, an adolescent who sees herself as “forever nature’s child” and as an outsider to the rest of the community content with adhering to the traditions of the forefathers.  Into this mix comes a new family, the Eichenwalds with mother Anna Maria, a midwife from outside the region, whose unconventional  treatments arouse suspicion and daughter Thea who recognises Hanne as a kindred spirit.

So far this feels like we are on typical Kent territory with her doing what she does so well evoking a small community battling with tradition and a fear of new ideas but this is very much a book of three parts, with a marked tonal shift in each.

The second part ramps up the adventure stakes with the community’s response to persecution and the third, with what happens afterwards becomes more lyrical, spiritual and poetic. Compared to her other novels this has the same focused intensity but here the plot events bring about a sense of space which gives contrast to the pressures of small space living

This is very much a love story between Hanne and Thea as suggested by the “Devotion” of the title and this is the unifying strength between the three parts.  This is touching, often heart-breaking and effectively conveyed throughout. 

There seems to be a 4-5 year gap between Hannah Kent’s novels, which always feel thoroughly researched and may explain this but her third novel should cement her reputation as a very good historical writer and will give new readers who come to her via this publication a chance to catch up with her work so far whilst waiting for her next book to appear.

Devotion is published in the UK on February 3rd by Picador.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Looking Back…..Looking Forward

This is my end of year report, looking back at the 10 titles I had eagerly anticipated last year and seeing how many of them I actually got around to reading as well as picking ten more choices for 2022. In 2020 I got round to reading five out of the ten titles , in 2019 three out of the ten and four out of ten the year before. Let’s see how I did in 2021.

Memorial – Bryan Washington (Atlantic Books)

I read this in January, the month it was published, and it was my first five star read of the year and narrowly missed out on my end of year Top 10. I’d read Washington’s prize-winning short story collection “Lot” but this cranked up to a higher gear for me. The central male couple straddle cultures and the set-up leaves Black American Benson with his partner Mike’s Japanese mother, who he had never previously met, whilst Mike goes to Osaka to be with his dying father who had deserted the family years before. Cue much family tension and bonding over cooking.

The Prophets- Robert Jones Jnr (Quercus Books)

An astonishing debut which ended up as number 2 in my end of year list with its haunting appeal hanging over me from January for the rest of 2021. I said “it could very well become a contender for the twenty-first century Great American novel.” I hope this becomes a big seller in paperback when it is published later this month.

Girl In The Walls- A J Gnuse (4th Estate)

This was a four star read for me in March. Debut writers are really having to be original and inventive to stand out from the crowd and Gnuse certainly did this with his creepy thriller. 11 year old Elise lives in the space of a house she formerly lived in, now owned by a new family and their teenage boys. Nobody suspects she is there until a younger boy turns up unannounced to the house. This is a high-quality commercial thriller which will really have readers holding their breath.

Lamplighters – Emma Stonex (Picador)

This is a book that seems to have done quite well sales-wise since I read it in February. I’ve asked a few people who read it their opinion and it feels that it doesn’t quite match the expectations which readers have when starting it. I found it entertaining but it did not blow me away and I gave it a three star rating. The 1970’s lighthouse setting is great, as claustrophobic and intense as you might expect. A modern day narrative strand sets out to explain what is set up as a classic locked-room mystery. I said at the time; “After months of lockdown I think we are all in a better position to appreciate better Stonex’s writing and have stronger ideas of these lives than we would have done a year or two ago, making this a very commercially apposite proposition.”

Hot Stew-Fiona Mozley (John Murray)

I rated this three stars in March, an enjoyable urban tale which is very different from the author’s Booker shortlisted debut “Elmet” and I applauded the author for that. Early reviews compared to it to a modern day Dickens, I said of this. “It’s all likeable and in a way I can appreciate those that are seeing this as modern day Dickens but it all feels a little unresolved which Dickens would not be.”

Many Different Types Of Love – Michael Rosen (Penguin)

Read this in March and gave it a five star rating with it ending up at number 4 in my Books of The Year. I said “This was the best non-fiction work I have read this year. I’m not sure how ready I am to read about the Covid-19 pandemic, it might still be a little too much too soon but I was certainly prepared to make an exception for this collection of prose poems from a writer I very much admire who nearly became a Covid death statistic.” Moving, funny and with loads of heart from Rosen and those who cared for him.

Kitchenly 434- Alan Warner (White Rabbit)

This one passed me by. It got good reviews so I will hopefully get round to this butler and rock star tale. This year saw a well-received film adaptation of the book of Alan Warner’s I’ve read which I love “The Sopranos” retitled “Our Ladies” which suffered from multiple rescheduling because of the pandemic which I also haven’ t seen but hope to do so.

Harlem Shuffle – Colson Whitehead (Fleet)

Like Fiona Mozley, here was an author who did something very different, with this book I rated three stars in September, an understated crime novel which featured on quite a few end of the year lists but I think perhaps my own expectations were a little too high which led to me feeling a tad disappointed. I said “I found plot development a little stop-start and the novel does not flow as well as I would have hoped.” 

People Person – Candice Carty-Williams (Trapeze)

This was scheduled for September but didn’t materialise. I’ve seen it listed on the BBC news website “Books To Look Forward To In 2022” and it is now due for publication at the end of May.

Diary Of A Suburban Lady – Lucy Mangan (Souvenir Press)

Retitled “Are We Having Fun Yet?”, I certainly did when I read it in September and rated it four stars. Written in diary format, I said  “It is a very commercial work, written in a genre where fans will be loyal and supportive, it feels fresh and contemporary, so it’s a shrewd move which could sell very well indeed.” The paperback is due in June.

Woo-hoo! That’s 8 out of 10 read and one of those I couldn’t read because it hasn’t been published yet. Here are ten more titles which have attracted my attention pre-publication and I will certainly be looking out for in 2022.

The Heretic – Liam McIllvanney (Harper Collins) ( due out on 20th January)

Follow-up to Scottish Crime Book Of The Year “The Quaker” which I read back in 2018 which introduced DI Duncan McCormack in a late 60’s Glasgow setting. This location was the setting for my current Book of The Year. Could McIlvanney’s Glasgow make it two in a row? This book shifts forward in time to the mid 70’s. Last time round I was impressed by the feel of the period and the character of McCormack so this is certainly one I want to read.

Devotion – Hannah Kent (Picador) (due out on 3rd February)

It’s been five years since Hannah Kent’s last novel “The Good People“. “Devotion” is her third, I’ve read both her others and have given them four star ratings. Set in Prussia in 1836, I’ve found Kent’s previous works to “be saturated with the feel of the times” so expect real authenticity in its setting. We are being promised “a stunning story of girlhood and friendship, faith and suspicion, and the impossible lengths we go to for the ones we love.

Love Marriage – Monica Ali (Virago) (due out on 3rd February)

This is Monica Ali’s 4th novel. I haven’t read her, inexplicably, since her most famous novel, 2003’s “Brick Lane” ended up as runner-up of my favourite reads of 2004. Featuring doctors as the main characters this is being touted as “a story about who we are and how we love in today’s Britain – with all the complications and contradictions of life, desire, marriage and family. What starts as a captivating social comedy develops into a heart-breaking and gripping story of two cultures, two families and two people trying to understand one another.” That description certainly get the thumbs up from me.

Flicker In The Dark – Stacy Willingham (Harper Collins) (due out on 3rd February)

A debut book already picked up for a television adaptation. This is a tense, edge of the seat thriller. I don’t actually read that many of these but there is something about this Louisiana swamps set serial killer tale which I find very appealing. I like small town mentality in my thrillers, where everyone knows everything about everybody and apparently this book will really deliver on this. Author Jeffery Deaver has said of it; “Author Willingham takes us on an unstoppable journey through the psychology of evil, and of courage (in many senses), all told in a pitch-perfect literary style.”

A Good Day To Die – Amen Alonge (Quercus Books) (due out on 17th February)

Another debut with a big buzz, the first in a British crime series which will feature a character called Pretty Boy and his desire for revenge. It’s being talked about as a British version of “The Wire” and we can expect it to be gritty, brutal yet full of dry humour. The author is currently training to be a solicitor but might find himself needing to change the day job if this book really takes off in the way some suspect it will.

Mother’s Boy – Patrick Gale (Tinder Press) (due out on 1st March)

A Cornish historical novel from a writer who can really impress me and who is a great storyteller. I think, judging by what I’ve read it is a fictional account of the life of poet Charles Causley focusing on his war experiences. His last novel, 2018’s “Take Nothing With You” was the best of his books I have read and featured in my 100 Essential Books strand. I hope this will be as good.

Mouth To Mouth- Antoine Wilson (Atlantic Books) (due out on 3rd March)

Lots of praise for this American author’s first novel already. The story of an author who wants to find out more about a man’s life he saved. Andrew Sean Greer who wrote “Less” which won him both a Pulitzer Prize and a four star review from me says it is; “the best book I’ve read in ages. Narratively ingenious, delicately written, intriguingly plotted, it is literature of the highest quality. I see you now, dear Reader, with this novel in your hand and already losing track of time “ That is an impressive recommendation.

Memphis – Tara M Stringfellow (John Murray) (due out on 7th April)

A debut from African-American writer who here explores three generations of a Memphis family. It comes with a recommendation from my runner up for Book Of The Year author Robert Jones Jnr who describes it as having “an endearing and unforgettable cast of characters who find strength in vulnerability, safety in art, and liberation in telling the truth.

Young Mungo – Douglas Stuart (Picador) (due out on 14th April)

The author of my Best Book of 2021 looking to make it two in a row. A love story between two men from working class Glasgow- one Catholic and one Protestant. The publishers are promising “a gripping and revealing story about the meaning of masculinity, the push and pull of family, the violence faced by so many queer people, and the dangers of loving someone too much.” Considering how well everything was handled in the Booker winning “Shuggie Bain” I have high hopes for this one.

Theatre Of Marvels – Lianne Dillsworth (Penguin) (due out on 28th April)

A debut from a Black British author. I love a Victorian London setting and anything with a hint of the Gothic and here the author is said to come up with the goods in her tale of an actress from Crillick’s Variety Theatre. The author has an MA in Victorian Studies and early reviews are praising her ability in bringing the setting and location to vivid life. There’s a real buzz about this author and this book which will continue to build up to publication.

That’s 10 books to look out for all in the first four months of the year with that date of 3rd February looking like a good one for book-lovers. Here’s to lots of good reading in 2022!

Burial Rites – Hannah Kent (Picador 2013) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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A little while back I read Australian author Hannah Kent’s second novel “The Good People”,  a dark sombre tale set in nineteenth century Ireland with superstition and folklore battling against religion and common sense.  A friend, who read and loved it recommended I seek out Kent’s debut and I am very glad I have.

This writer can certainly do atmosphere.  The claustrophobic smoke-filled peat huts of village Ireland are here replaced by the darkness, freezing conditions and damp wool of nineteenth century Iceland.  Like “The Good People” Kent has used a real-life case for this historical crime novel.  Here it is the plight of Agnes Magnusdottir whose claim for infamy is that she was the last person to be executed for murder in Iceland in 1834.

Following a spell in prison after the death of two men Agnes is sent out to lodge with a local official’s family to await her beheading and to get access to a local minister who would attempt to set her back on the right path.  Agnes had previously spent some time in the area where she had met a young Reverend who she nominates as the man to meet with her. With an Icelandic winter approaching escape from her situation is unlikely and she becomes involved with the work of the family in their preparation for winter.

Her tale is largely told in the one room of the farm with the family and workers, understandably wary of the murderess in their midst, listening in.

This is some debut with Kent totally abandoning the “write what you know” advice to recreate nineteenth century Iceland.  She had spent some time in the country as an exchange student.  This was when the location of the real-life Agnes’ execution was pointed out to here but this novel obviously required a vast amount of research and immersion into the environment to give its intense atmosphere and make it totally convincing.  Her absorption of Icelandic sagas is incorporated into the narrative style of the novel.  This is backed up with good use of documents and reports, which I’m loving in crime novels at the moment and which was the real strength of “His Bloody Project” another nineteenth century tale of murder in a small, isolated community.

The fate of Agnes and the truth about her incarceration is central to the novel and the theme of the woman outside the norm being seen as somehow wicked is a fairly universal one for the time when it was set.  Agnes could have indeed worked as a character in Victorian England but what Kent would have not been able to achieve is this intensity, the claustrophobia, the darkness and dampness nor the vivid impression of the life of these Icelandic folk.

If asked to choose between the two I might give “The Good People” a slight edge because I really enjoyed the way it incorporated Irish folklore into the story.  These two novels show Kent as a writer with so much potential.  I  was also fascinated by the author’s account of the writing of this novel in the back of the paperback edition I read.

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Burial Rites was published by Picador in 2013.

The Good People- Hannah Kent (Picador 2017)

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Having only very recently read another Picador publication “The Wonder” by Emma Donoghue it is easy to see parallels between that and this book,  Australian author Hannah Kent’s second novel.

Both are set in nineteenth century Irish villages and feature the highly questionable treatment of a child as central.  In both novels belief overshadows rational thought.  In “The Wonder” it is religious fervour which proclaims a child not eating as a sign of the miraculous, in “The Good People” religion is itself at odds with the lore of fairies and the superstition of deeply entrenched folklore.  The local priest can only speak out about this, his influence upon it is limited.  In many ways this makes for a book that is darker than Donoghue’s but both are equally effective.

When the son of Nora Leahy’s recently deceased daughter fails to develop in the way he should the locals believe that he is a changeling and that the real Michael has been swept away by the fairies (the “good people” of the title). It is when Nora seeks the help of the isolated local wise woman Nance (described by some as the “herb-hag”) that Nora begins to believe they can get the real Michael back.

The evocation of life in this Irish valley a day’s walk form Killarney, Co. Kerry, is very strong.  Is there currently some masterclass about recreating the hardships of nineteenth century rural life dominated by peat, mud and potatoes that both Kent and Donoghue attended as they both manage to get this over very convincingly.  It is a tough existence where the survival of the community is so much to the fore that superstition provides a strong grounding for luck or lack of it.  Kent has used a real incident as her starting point and has developed believable characters and highly plausible situations. At times this can make for difficult reading as misery is heaped on the unfortunate child “to put the fairy out of it.”

Anyone expecting tweeness so close to the realm of the fairies would be wrong.  What you get from this book is the real sense of how important folklore was to this village’s everyday existence.  This suggests seamless research as the book is saturated with the feel of the times.  It is dark, has a strong sense of foreboding, with inevitable tragedies and is a very involving read.

fourstars

 

The Good People is published in the UK hardback by Picador, an imprint of Pan Macmillan  on the 9th February.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for an advance review copy.