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The Real Deal: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

What I really need to do is make sure what I am seeing is the real deal and not a complete figment of my imagination.

– Hannah Kent

Burial Rites is a historical novel set in 1830 that narrates the final year in the life of the last woman to be publicly executed in Iceland, Agnes Magnúsdóttir. One of the two men Agnes was accused of murdering, Natan Ketilsson, was a personality of the times, connected with poets and freethinkers, and the episode is still known in Iceland. It has previously been the subject of books and films. In this English-language treatment, the archival sources prominently feature. Direct translations of historical documents appear as extended epigraphs to each of the thirteen chapters, setting rather strict narrative limits. Unless the facts are being played with (they are not), the novel needs to meet with readers’ expectations of historical plausibility. It is not surprising to find a pre-emptive defensiveness in the author’s note: ‘The high level of literacy shown by the characters is historically accurate.’

The historical materials are absorbed into the tissue of the novel in the way that some contemporary historical films make use of contemporaneous footage. The language of the historical documents and the twenty-first century prose are not made identical, but there is an effort to blend them. Archaisms, more and less awkward, appear in both the narrative voice and representations of speech: in the lexicon (‘whorling’, ‘breakfast victuals’), grammar (‘she spat wetly upon the grass’, ‘[a] slipper wanting mending’) and register (‘I am of the opinion that a drier home allows better circulation of air, and is therefore better for the health’). It also prompts much description specific to nineteenth-century rural Iceland and there are many Icelandic terms, mostly proper nouns, but also phrases.

The labour of detail can be impressive:

Next are the bones, and the heads. I ask Lauga to empty the tallow pot of gristle and water, but she pretends she cannot hear me and keeps her eyes fixed ahead of her. Kristín goes instead. When Steina sidles up to me again, smiling shyly, wondering if there is anything I need doing, I ask her to fill the empty pot with the bones that cannot be used for anything else. Salt. Barley. Water. Steina and I haul the pot next to the poaching blood sausage, for the marrow to leach into the simmering water, for the salt and heat to prise away all the tenderness from the carcass. She claps her hands when we fix the slopping pot upon the hook and immediately begins to throw more fuel on the fire.

Here we see Agnes’s increasing sway over the younger sister, Steina, and her growing influence in the affairs of the family. Her skilfulness establishes her authority, and she is unruffled by the snub from the elder sister, Lauga. The parallel syntax (‘for the marrow…’ / ‘for the salt…’) conveys the rhythm of the activity, and metonymy (‘tenderness’ for lamb) deftly foregrounds the cooking process. The unusual use of a noun of action as an adjective (‘slopping’) runs in the flow of present participles. Historical research, plotting, characterisation and style meld into convincing prose.

Cinematographic analogies seem apt for this novel. It begins with a short lyrical prologue in Agnes’s voice that is identical in tone to the voice-over that often leads into title credits. The structure is also, in a sense, filmic. There is frequent ‘cutting’ from scene to scene, while maintaining steady momentum in the plotting. Each chapter has a number of major section breaks (around five per chapter), and these often have internal breaks. It is usually only a page or two to get through before lights out. The most significant differentiation of narrative style is between a mostly discreet third-person and Agnes’s first-person, at a proportion of roughly 2:1.

The premise is simple and clearly articulated. With a year to live, Agnes is interned at the farm of Margrét and Jón and their two daughters in rural Kornsa. Over the course of the novel, the details of her life leading up to the murder of Natan are recounted through memories and discussions with her priest counsel. The inexperienced Reverend Tóti is something of a prop for Agnes’s monologues, their interactions more resembling the talking cure than religious guidance. Agnes’s presence produces tensions in the family and local community, creating a separate source of narrative momentum. If the method is that of the historical novel, the genre might be described as a mix of the death-row novel, Gothic romance and feminist revisionism. The first produces a compelling narrative arc. The second provides the frisson – the destitute yet poetic maid who has a love affair with a free-thinking secular mystic. The third supplies the novel’s ethics and narrative mode: the voice recovered from the margins, given fullness of being through the fictional imagination.

We have seen that where the historical research is thorough, the style can be assured. However, the prose is by no means functional. There is a tendency for unusual descriptors:

He mounted his horse and vanished behind the swell of hills

a slight blur of blue, a smudge of skirt being hauled off a horse

one [stocking] was torn, exposing a slice of pale skin

Margrét winced at the smear of dried blood … and the grime that lay in streaks across her forehead

grief that sets in when death falls thickly in the home

I catch the words as they slither through the gap between this room and the next

There were smears of violet that swelled against darkness of the night

Autumn fell upon the valley like a gasp

He sniffed and wiped his nose on his glove, leaving a shiny smear upon the wool

the verses lifted over the snowy field and fell about them like a mist

One begins to see patterns. A penchant for painterly descriptions (smudge, smear, streaks); striking analogies, such as the alignment of humans and weather (Autumn / gasp, verses / mist), often mobilised by an unexpected verb (to fall); metonymy of quality for noun; the animation of language (words ‘slither’, verses ‘lift’); modifiers that have verbal connotations (‘swell’, ‘slice’). These examples, and numerous others like them, tend to come towards the beginning of chapters or sections. They give the sense of a writer running through synonyms in order to create the effect of haughty incisiveness.

Unavoidably, the greatest technical risks come in the passages of first-person narration. Without the guide of archival materials, Agnes’s interiority must be summoned through a mixture of historical empathy and the means available from literary style. It cannot be doubted that there is a consistency in these sections. Perhaps too much. A handful of conspicuous rhetorical devices are repeatedly called upon. Take the following, which appear over two pages of text:

they have strapped me to the saddle like a corpse being taken to the burial ground … bruises, blossoming like a star clusters under the skin … I am tied like a lamb for slaughter … I wonder where they will store me, cellar me like butter, like smoked meat. Like a corpse … like a cow I go where I am led … it is as though the winter has set up home in my marrow … rotting slowly in a room like a body in a coffin … Like a woman, he said. The sea is a nag … The light had arrived like a hunted thing

It could well be that the density of simile reflects Agnes’s mental state as she is transported to the farm. Although they do not again come as thickly, similes are a continual feature of her voice. We are to believe that Agnes has a strongly lyrical spirit, so this has grounds in the characterisation. It just makes her lyricism a bit annoying.

The frequency of rhetorical or leading questions and syntactic parallels, however, starts to raise questions about the technical range. The following are only a small sample:

You, Agnes Magnúsdóttir, have been found guilty of accessory to murder. You, Agnes Magnúsdóttir have been found guilty of arson, and conspiracy to murder. You, Agnes Magnúsdóttir, have been sentenced to death. You, Agnes. Agnes.

I was two dead men. I was burning farm. I was a knife. I was blood.

What would I say to him anyway, now that it has come to this?

But what is the use of protesting against language?

Is this happiness, this warmth against my chest? Like another’s hand placed there?

He knew me as one knows the seasons, knows the tide. Knew me like the smell of smoke, knew what I was, and what I wanted.

Until I feel that I’m not moving myself, and that the sun is driving me. Until I am a puppet of the wind, and of the scythe, and of the long, slow strokes that propel my body forward. Until I couldn’t stop if I wanted to.

When the Reverend saw my name and birth in the church book, did he only see the writing and understand only the date? Or did he see the fog of that day, and hear the ravens cawing at the smell of blood? Did he imagine it as I have imagined it?

Is the Reverend the person in my memory, or is he another altogether? Did I do that, or was it another? Magnús or Jón? … did my mother look down at her baby daughter and think:  ‘One day I will leave you’?

A lie for a father. A head of dark hair. A hayrack to sleep in. A kiss. A stone, so that I might learn to understand the birds and never be lonely.

Did I author my own fate, then? … Did I hold her too tightly?

Are my eyes open or shut? Perhaps it was a ghost who woke me – how can I explain these lights appearing in the murk before me? … Was I dreaming?

I craved his weight, then. I craved the breath of him: the quickening inhalation and the warm pressure of his mouth. … I could feel him, the heat of him, the very quick of him.

What else is God good for other than a distraction from the mire we’re all stranded in? … When was the last time I even attended church?

I am barren … I am the dead fish drying in the cold air. I am the dead bird on the shore. I am dry, I am not certain I will bleed when they drag me out to meet the axe.

Of course, it is somewhat unfair to line up instances of particular stylistic features – each might be justifiable in context. The point is that at moments of earnest meaning-making, the same strategies are employed. By the time the novel climaxes, the prose feels exhausted:

Don’t feed me or I will bite you, I will bite the hand that feeds me, that refuses to love me, that leaves me. Where is my stone? You don’t understand! I have nothing to say to you, where are the ravens? Jóas has sent them all away, they never speak to me, it’s not fair. See what I do for them? It’s strange, I shatter my teeth, and they still will not speak to me. Only the wind. Only the wind speaks and it will not talk sense, it screams like the widow of the world and will not wait for a reply.

Agnes is at the point of derangement, yet little further affect is to be wrung from the same devices. One suspects that the emotional arc of the death-row novel will propel many first-time readers through; a sensitive reading reveals the substance to be a little thin.

I was confirmed in this judgement when reflecting on the relentless symbolism of ravens and stones. It seems that one or the other, or both, appear every couple of pages, as though mere repetition will accumulate significance. There is an attempt to integrate them into the narrative (her mother gives her a stone on abandonment, ravens are present at significant moments in life), and a moment of light magical realism right at the end when Agnes chokes on and spits out a stone on the road to her execution, but without sensing their basis in the novel’s greater purpose, I was nonplussed. The function would seem to be more a kind of cinematic cue – a visual ornament, an atmospheric device.

 

Hannah Kent received a seven figure advance comprised of offers from three publishers for Burial Rites as part of a two-book deal. This is her first novel, written towards completing a PhD at Flinders University. She is 28 years old.

Stuart Glover has written an illuminating essay in the Sydney Review of Books on Kent and three other just-published first-time Australian novelists. He focuses on the interplay between publishers and university creative writing programs, whose job it is to elicit a certain base-level competence from students; or, as he puts it, ‘a lack of incompetence’.  Increasingly, the acquisition of institutional credentials, recognition and advances is the platform on which new writers enter the commercial sphere. This creates the strange scenario in which there can be incentive for publishers to increase advances in order to create a first wave of publicity. In Kent’s case:

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.

A first-time novelist is already a difficult assignment for a reviewer. With the fact of the cash hanging over it, a judgement of literary value is all the more tricky: a positive review might look like commercial complicity, a negative one mean-spirited. In order to distinguish authentic aesthetic judgements amongst the reviews of Burial Rites, it will help to digress a little to consider the way the advance for Burial Rites fits into the logic of trade book publishing. In the absence of industry experience, Critic Watch’s guide is John B. Thompson’s gripping analysis Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century (2010). Any flaws in the following come from misapplying concepts or an over-reliance on that study.

A large advance for a young first-time novelist might easily be supposed to mean that the novel is mass-market pulp. Alternatively, it might mean that we have a prodigy on our hands and the money reflects the quality of the work. It has only one certain meaning: that the publisher believes it can at least recoup costs. In addition to the advance (which includes agent’s fees), a publisher will pay for marketing (which averages at around 6.5% of projected revenue), production and distribution costs, and overheads. Dan Brown received a $US400 000 advance for a two-book deal that included The Da Vinci Code (2003). He was established and had published several books. So how is it possible that a studious historical novel with literary pretensions by an unknown first-time author can receive nearly three-times the advance of the novel that has defined the parameters of the market for contemporary popular fiction?

This has much to do with recent developments in the collection of sales data. At the turn of the century, Nielsen Company developed a service called BookScan. This makes available to subscribers collated point-of-sales data purchased from retail outlets. An author’s sales figures were previously known only to her publisher and agent. With BookScan covering around 90% of sales, everyone can now see everyone else’s business. Two or three books into their career, authors are bonded to their track record. If they have failed to garner enough sales to make them attractive to their publisher’s bottom line, the marketing budget is reduced or they are cut loose. If they try to move publisher, their ‘track’  hovers over them like a dark cloud. Dan Brown’s modest track meant that the publishers would have had to bet that the Da Vinci Code would sell against his trend. A new author, however, is all clear skies and so one of the very few occasions when the imaginations and enthusiasms of publishers are able to roam a little. To the unpublished masses the industry may seem impenetrable, but it is not true that it is geared to serve the already published.

The seven-figure advance for Burial Rites is not an aberration. What is notable is that it signals that Burial Rites is a ‘Big Book’: a priority title to which the publisher will assign sizeable editing and marketing resources in the hopes of generating income well above costs. (Kent’s evident ‘lack of incompetence’ is partly a result of a lengthy editorial process which she has described in an essay in Kill Your Darlings.) This creates incentive for commissioning editors, who compete with each other even within an imprint, to hype their titles in a way that prompts big offers. As Thompson observes: ‘the more you pay, the bigger the book is and the more likely it is that it will be seen and treated as a big book all the way down the line, from positioning within the catalogue and the allocating of marketing spend to prioritization by the sales directors and the way the book is worked by the reps.’

Burial Rites ascension to a Big Book is not a fairy tale, though it is perhaps unusual for a writer so far from London and New York, or even Sydney and Melbourne. It follows a typical sequence which we can analyse as the conversion of ‘hype’ about the book’s quality into ‘buzz’ about its real prospects as a commodity. Hype requires only superlatives and a rhetoric of sincerity. Buzz comes when a publisher is prepared to lay down hard cash. In a competitive environment, Burial Rites is remarkable for having travelled so smoothly through this process.

Firstly, there needs to be objective-seeming indicators of the book’s quality. This would usually be the judgement of the literary agent, who must protect her reputation to remain in business. Burial Rites was given a significant leg-up when it won the Writing Australia prize for best unpublished manuscript. This helped secure an agent at the multi-national Curtis Brown, and a well-known mentor, Geraldine Brooks, whose appraisal appears on the cover of Burial Rites: ‘an accomplished gem, its prose as crisp and sparkling as its northern setting.’

The well-connected agent would have approached commissioning editors who could be expected to be sympathetic to the novel’s premise and aesthetic. A phone call or covering letter would have hyped the book in terms that would guarantee buzzability. This would not be anything resembling literary criticism, but an assessment peculiar to the industry’s imperatives. In the absence of a track record, the agent would stress the prize and judgement of a well-known author (and their marketing potential). Comparisons would be made to similar novels that had enjoyed significant sales, as well as to cultural trends. Kent was fortunate to have been entering the market with a historical novel set in Scandinavia at a time when historical novels and Scandinavian themes are in. The agent would also have pointed out the ways in which both the novel and the author could be marketed – the author’s ‘platform’ (or ‘selling points’). The agent would have pointed out specific demographics that would constitute a ready in-built market for the title. For literary fiction, the book club is one of the strongest word-of-mouth instruments. With thought to publicity tours and media, there might also have been comments on the author’s personality and appearance. And, also, the potential for cinematic adaptation.

The commissioning editor was convinced. It next would have been recommended to the head of the imprint and an offer made. Hype has become buzz, but it is still not a Big Book. A debut only reaches Big Book status by way of an auction: a so-called ‘bidding war’. When two or more publishers bid on a novel, notes Thompson, it confirms their respective internal processes of evaluation:

The auction is a continuous process of re-evaluating the value of the book, testing one’s own judgements and opinions against the judgements and opinions of others and adjusting them in this light. The higher others are prepared to go, the more likely it is that you will be inclined to think that you should go higher too.

It is no longer one or two bees, but a hive, and the publishers feel certain that someone is going to collect the honey. On this occasion, the winning bids that formed the two-book deal came from Picador Australia (who are reported to have paid $350 000) and UK (both imprints of Pan Macmillan international), and Little, Brown in the US (an imprint of Hachette, which reportedly paid seven figures).

 

The index to Merchants of Culture does not have a listing under ‘reviews’ or ‘reviewers’. Evidently reviewing is not a significant element in the logic of the trade book industry. The single page that does consider reviewing points to its declining significance. Unlike cinema, literary works are not usually judged with easily visible stars. One is just as likely to see the recommendation of a prominent novelist or mention of a prize on the cover as a line from a review. When an outlay has been made on a Big Book, the publisher needs to create a market for it, and the route to a mass readership is not through disinterested judgements. Ideally, a Big Book will enter the bestsellers list in its first week of release, usually ahead of, or concurrent with the first reviews. The job of the marketing team is to reach out to the target readership well ahead of time, and generate a large cache of pre-orders that will count as first-day sales. Once secured, the ‘bestseller’ moniker will be used to push the book hard in the six-to-eight week window that most books have to establish themselves. Failing that, marketing resources are quickly pulled. Says one publicity manager at a large publishing corporation:

If a book is not working there’s not a lot you can do. And if the fish is dead you let it float downstream. I’m sorry, but you just let her go, baby.

The marketing team is responsible for ensuring that buzz becomes honey. If it fails, the publisher makes a loss, the agent loses commercial credibility, and the author floats downstream.

For literary fiction, face-to-face events remain a key marketing instrument. According to her website, as of October 5, Kent had appeared at twenty-four bookstores, three libraries, and four literary festivals since May (her US schedule is the most gruelling). There will also be macromedia advertising: newspaper and magazine ads, ‘light walls’ and dump bins in shopping centres and airports. Australian publishers still favour backs of buses. There will be co-operative arrangements with bookstores to ensure that the novel is the first thing that meets the eye of the customer. (Effectively, this means publishers rent window and front of store table space from chain bookstores. This will also extend to the catalogues and bookstore promotions, including online.) The publicist will attempt to get interviews for the author in newspapers

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

and in magazines and on radio

1, 2, 3, 4.

Kent’s publicists even managed to snag an episode of Australian Story.

As with most retail industries, trade book publishing has needed to adapt rapidly to the burgeoning online environment. This has not replaced traditional forms, but it is now likely to form the focus of any campaign. Rather than the dogfight for eyeballs in physical space, the internet makes available fine-grained methods for reaching a target readership. This particularly suits first-time authors, who can develop their name from blog to blog. Of course, the author must have their own website, and there will be the usual Facebook and Twitter. There will be online versions of formats adapted from traditional media, whether print

1, 2, 3, 4, 5

audio

1, 2, 3

or visual

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7.

Of most relevance to book reviewing, is the targeting of book-related sites and blogs. It used to be that review copies would be sent to professional reviewers and established names, who would suffer reputational damage if they were perceived to be for hire. Now a publisher will send out dozens, even hundreds of advance copies to internet loud-mouths and online communities. Word-of-mouth is not hoped for, but concertedly generated. The following blogs, mostly US-based, have informed their readers that the publishers forwarded free advances of Burial Rites:

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12.

The standard caveat seems to be the free copy is an ‘exchange for my honest opinion’; an admission that the bloggers are not expected to be vocational. Whether by such fabricated means or genuine word-of-blog, once a book is taken up, it circulates at velocity:

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15 ,16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40, 41, 42, 43, 44, 45

This non-exhaustive list was compiled in the early days of the release into the UK and US markets. For literary fiction, the end of the rainbow is the book club circuit. When a literary novel takes hold here, it has hit the commercial sweet spot of accessibility and gravitas. Kent’s aim has been true:

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10.

Again, some book clubs report being forwarded copies.

When this is combined with the promotional ‘reviews’ of bookstores –

1, 2, 3

– we confront a billowing cloud of opinion. There are, no doubt, acute and sensitive readers within this cloud, and the subject of reviewing in the blogging world requires careful delineation and discrimination. Seen as a whole, however – and this is the view taken by the publishers – the overwhelmingly tendency is to opinions without responsibility, in which judgements assume the tone of assertions of self-worth and identity. Lacking self-awareness but big on naive honesty, it is no wonder that the cloud can be commercially manipulated. This subtle infusion of the commercial into the domain of literary judgement makes cash-for-comment or product placements in films look like clumsy prototypes.

BookScan reveals that Burial Rites has sold over 50 000 copies in Australia since May, at a recommended retail price of $32.99.

So: whether or not by manipulated means, you’ve heard about the book about the woman condemned to death in Greenland or somewhere. You want to know if it’s any good – you track down the title and search for reviews. As things stand, most readers of literary fiction are likely to search among the results for reviews from respected print sources. However, as online and print spheres merge, and consumers seek quick advice on quality, it is ever more likely that an impressionistic or commercially infused response will stand in for the subjectively universal judgement of the vocational critic. This is intensified in the case of a Big Book, when the publisher has done everything they can to generate a reception that circumvents the need for such appraisals. When Burial Rites had only been released in Australia, it took some searching to locate good reviews within the billowing cloud. Fortunately, at the top of the results for Burial Rites, there is now a diligent and acute review from the New York Times (considered below).

The entire field of literary criticism is shifting, and the delineation of the cloud becomes increasingly important for monitoring criticism’s career in the broad public sphere. The great challenge at present is for the established domains of disinterested judgement to retain their integrity as transformations take place in format, revenue structure and reading habits. In the case of Burial Rites, there is the added challenge of the hype surrounding the novel’s advance, in which a reviewer can easily be destabilised by the interpenetration of literary and commercial value.

Writing in the Monthly, Alexandra Coghlan, perhaps a little disingenuously, places the burden of hype back on the prose: ‘pressure this competent debut could do without’. Coghlan’s short review gives the novel relatively short shrift. It is ‘solid enough’ revisionist history, the lyricism ‘occasionally spilling over into excess’. A pithy summary of the novel’s compositional and ethical premise, no less accurate for being so: ‘the lists and stock phrases of municipal discourse offer a hard surface for the protagonist’s first-person monologues to rebound against, animating the issue of historical absolutes: these documents tell the truth, but do they tell the story?’ Mischievously, she appropriates the novel’s rhetoric in order to describe it: ‘our heroine emerges in a smudgy collage of events.’ One is not entirely sure what the cliché ‘bulges at the seams’ is supposed to mean, but Coghlan evidently wants to counter the novel’s melodrama and commercial hype with sharp wit. Not surprisingly, the review does not appear amongst those listed on the author’s website.

The opposite treatment is given by Michael McGirr in the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age. A summary of the novel’s historical premise and plot precedes high-praise for Kent’s ‘fine turn of phrase’. He finds Agnes’s voice ‘mellifluous’, citing several lines that made Critic Watch wince, such as ‘he knew me as one knows the seasons, the tides’ and ‘only the outlying tongues of rock scarred the perfect kiss of sea and sky’. Unfazed, or perhaps not sensitive to the arioso aspect of Agnes’s voice, McGirr characterises her voice as ‘hum[ming] gently’ through the novel. The review closes with praise for the novelist for embracing a non-Australian subject.

Not so Bronwyn Lea in the Australian Book Review, whoseexplicit appraisal, tellingly, is confined to a short final paragraph. For all its evident narrative skill, the book is ‘not a particularly challenging read’ and ‘leans heavily’ on its genre devices. The rest of a decent-sized review is given to the historical background of the case of Agnes; a reviewing approach more typical for non-fiction, suggesting that more worth is to be found in the history than the novelisation. In a comment concerning a potential Hollywood remake of the episode, one senses scepticism about commercial imperatives; the advance is flagged at the review’s opening.

Over at the Australian, Geordie Williamson’s penchant for aphorisms is on display: a line from Auden gets him in the mood and he warms down with another from Virginia Woolf. He touches on the backstory of Kent’s time researching in Iceland, but avoids mentioning the advance and the commercial context. Williamson is most concerned with the novel’s gender politics, and is the only critic across blogs and print to characterise it as an ‘angry depiction’. Compliments for Kent’s ‘uncanny knack for narrative’ (a phrase which will surely appear in the front matter of future printings), the novel’s successful historical realism, and the strength of the Agnes sections come before a closing criticism of what he regards to be overdone gender politics. The male characters are flat, if not stereotypes, it is claimed, and Woolf is used in a rather sharp manner to suggest aspects of the novel are politics dressed up as fiction.

In the Melbourne Review, Tali Lavi attempts to shield consideration of the novel from the commercial hype, but in doing so explicitly falls into the trap of repeating it. In a not very ambitious and mostly descriptive appraisal, Lavi admires the lyricism, or ‘poeticism’, of Agnes’s voice, but notes that the control over the language falters at times. In his brief comments on the novel in his Sydney Review of Books essay, Stuart Glover’s assessment is that the novel is impressive in psychological detail, but the shifts in narrative perspective are perhaps too frequent. The material is well chosen, but the novelist is not entirely in control of it.

Aside from McGirr, who does not make a particularly convincing case, there are no greatly positive reviews. All of the critics see that it is a novel with clear strengths, even if there is no agreement about what these are. Certainly, there is no favouritism for Kent as a first-time novelist attracting international attention – she is not ‘our Hannah’ yet. The hype over the advance is present, but it could not be judged to have greatly skewed consideration. The sense emerges across the reviews of a competent-to-skilfully written historical novel on a compelling theme with some unevenness in style and characterisation. It hardly seems worth pointing out that the novel’s commercial success and critical reception in Australia are at odds. And Critic Watch certainly would not wish to suggest that this selection of reviews could be said to be definitive. In setting judgements of literary value against the enveloping background of contemporary marketing, I have sought to signal the importance of distinguishing the two. If good reviewers wish to ensure that this remains possible, diligence and faint praise may not be enough.

I will leave consideration of the overseas reception of Burial Rites, which is ongoing, to interested readers. The novel has done well in the UK, with the Observer, Telegraph, Daily Express, and the Sunday Times all reviewing positively. The Guardian gives a mixed assessment. At time of writing, the reception in the US was not yet greatly developed. Special mention, though, for Steven Heighton in the New York Times. He does not select the aspects of the novel that it occurs to him to discuss, but, in 860 words, seeks to give a full sense of the qualities of the work. Refreshingly, and so rarely in contemporary newspaper reviewing, there is a concise, supported and convincing discussion of the novel’s style as it pertains to the realisation of narrative. Rather than lazy non-specific adjectives or aphorisms (‘beautiful prose’, ‘as sparkling as the northern setting’), there is sharp characterisation and incisive quotation. For example, Agnes’s self-decription as ‘beached in a peat bog of poverty’ is recognised as inventive, but its ‘metrical jauntiness deeply at odds with [the] meaning’. This shows a reader attentive to the interplay of style and meaning – too often the reviewer’s ear is alert only for one.

criticwatch@sydneyreviewofbooks.com

References

Alexandra Coghlan, ‘Burial Rites by Hannah Kent,’ The Monthly (May 2013).
Stuart Glover, ‘So Many Paths That Wind and Wind,’ Sydney Review of Books (4 October 2013).
Steven Heighton, ‘Fire and Ice,’ New York Times (27 September 2013).
Bronwyn Lea, ‘Ambiguous Agnes,’ Australian Book Review (May 2013).
Hannah Kent, Burial Rites (Picador, 2013).
Tali Lavi, ‘Review: Burial Rites,Melbourne Review (June 2013).
Michael McGirr, ‘Prejudice Melts Away in a Frigid Landscape,’ Sydney Morning Herald (25 May 2013).
John B. Thompson, Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century (Polity, 2010).
Geordie Williamson, ‘Outcast Doomed by Conformity in Hannah Kent’s Debut,’ The Australian (27 April 2013).