In Praise of the New 

Louise Pfanner shares her latest discoveries.

This month I have read two fantastic...

 - Friday, July 19, 2013


This month I have read two fantastic, very different debut novels, Hannah Kent's Burial Rites and Kevin Barry's City of Bohane. 
Following an impressive appearance on Australian Story and a strong performance at the recent Sydney Writers' Festival, Hannah Kent's star is well and truly on the rise. Burial Rites is the twenty eight year old South Australian's debut novel and it is a remarkable first outing. It tells the real life story of Agnes Magnusdottir, a domestic servant who was sentenced to death for her part in a brutal double murder in Iceland in 1829. We first meet Agnes after sentencing, when she is holed up in squalid conditions in a filthy storeroom. It is decided that she is to be moved to a somewhat kindlier family at Kornsa, who have been leaned upon to accept the murderess. Agnes is to spend her remaining days working hard and receiving spiritual guidance from an assistant reverend named Toti. The awkward, sensitive Toti is more Gospels than Revelations and thus he mainly listens to the story of Agnes's hard knock life. As the reader gradually learns more about Agnes's appalling upbringing and the crime she has committed, the tragedy becomes greater; you know early on that the authorities, keen to make an example of Agnes, are not going to let her live.
Burial Rites is set during the harvest of late summer through to the depths of winter. There are vivid, visceral descriptions of life on the edge, where a bad harvest can spell disaster and where a household can never stop working to survive. Meat must be smoked for the winter, socks knitted and butter churned. The cold weather is a deadly foe and keeping it at bay is a constant struggle. Kent has such a way with words that you feel as though you are there with the family at Kornsa. Indeed, she stayed in Iceland for a time as a teenager and her research into the lifestyle and habits of the Icelanders during this period is meticulous and extensive. What is at the heart of Kent's achievement is the wonderful characterization of Agnes, who, like Grace Marks in Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace, is an intelligent, feisty woman who is ultimately a victim of her terrible circumstances.
Now to an entirely different kettle of fish, Kevin Barry's wild, dystopian novel, City of Bohane. This work has recently been awarded the lucrative IMPAC Dublin award and it's easy to see why. The novel is original and inventive, with Barry creating an elaborate and brilliant nightmare world in north west Ireland in the not-too-distant future. Bohane is split along tribal lines and humans have reverted back to their most violent instincts. There are the families of the Northside Rises council towers, the Traveller communities of the dunes, the middle classes up in the heights and the slum dwellers in The Trace and Smoketown, where our story mainly takes place. All sides are battling for supremacy in the city so that they can control the vice profits. For now the city is run by the Trace Fancy, a gang ostensibly led by the charismatic, Kray-esque villain, Logan Hartnett. The power behind the throne however is Logan's geriatric mother, Girly. Girly is a wonderfully malevolent old bird, obsessed with violence and Golden Era Hollywood films. 
Barry has said that the novel's remarkable jive talking slang and vivid dialogue is inspired by what 'homicidal teenage hipsters' might sound like in 40 years. Indeed, after reading the book I'd say that Barry isn't all that enamoured with today's youth. The citizenry of Bohane have no morals, sense of community spirit or very much going for them other then their blood lust and their narcissistic obsession with fashion. But then again they are living in a society without electricity and any sort of leadership, or social and judicial fabric, so what else can we expect? Like The Road by Cormac McCarthy, City of Bohane is set in a post-fossil-fuel, environmentally diminished wasteland. Twelve people make up the entire civic leadership and they spend their hours wheeling and dealing so as to keep the peace. Opium and moonshine are everywhere and brutality is rife. People have to be thoroughly unpleasant just to survive. There are also shades of A Clockwork Orange, Trainspotting and the Mad Max movies, but really the creation is all Barry's own. It's hard not to be totally swept up by this fierce, electrifying novel. Barry's voice is urgent and original and the trip is an absolute blast. David McLaughlin