If you’re looking for storytelling that will involve you with character complexities, intriguing plots and memorable settings, you’ll find all that here, and more.
Agnes Magnúsdóttir was a young woman when she became the last person to be executed (publicly beheaded) in Iceland in the early nineteenth century, condemned for murdering Natan Ketilsson and Pétur Jónsson. She’s given over in protective custody to a farm family of a government official for the months preceding her execution. Agnes’s presence on the farm creates strife and challenge for the parents and two girls who must come to terms with the convict’s sympathetic humanity.
The isolated northern Icelandic landscape invites us into its gorgeous beauty and treacherous reality. The how and why details of the murders unfold as Agnes reveals her story to a visiting novice priest who struggles with knowing how to provide spiritual comfort and hope to a murderess. So, too, we learn of her impoverished life as a landless workmaid leading up to the crime.
The story interchanges between Agnes’s intimate first person inner thoughts and confessions to the priest, and then the objective tension-building third person view of the other characters. Hannah Kent writes with compassionate authority, deeply engaging us in the soul of human love and crime. In the Author’s Note at book’s end, she tells us she has knit together Agnes’s story in Burial Rites based on known and established facts, stating “events have either been drawn directly from the record, or are the result of speculation; they are fictional likelihoods.” This stunning novel entreats insight into how certainty leaves no entry point for the light of truth.
The title of this novel that drove me to read late into the night comes from the first day of the First World War’s Battle of the Somme. “Once the shelling was over, of the 100,000 British troops who attacked the German lines July 1, 1916, 20,000 were killed and over 40,000 were wounded. It was the single worst day in deaths and casualties in British military history.” (source: PBS.org)
The story begins earlier, in 1913, with the lives of four young men that will be changed by the war and, specifically, the battle – a time when we are introduced to their normal lives as a London store clerk fascinated by bicycles (Frank); a cathedral organist in Gloucester (Benedict); a British entrepreneur in New York City (Harry); and a village boy assisting the local blacksmith and doctor in Corbie, France (Jean-Baptiste).
Chapters are dedicated to each character as the story unfolds. In the beginning, I questioned whether or not I’d be able to remember all their life threads and signature details; however, that concern disappeared quickly – author Elizabeth Speller lures us into caring about each character’s decisions, motives, needs and fate with realism, surprise and emotional gravitas. They are the reason I kept turning the pages, wanting to know their outcomes.
Frank enters the war as a military bicycle messenger; Benedict joins up with his friend Theo, whom he secretly, romantically loves; Harry leaves the safety of America to join his fellow countrymen in battle in the midst of his father’s death and a major inheritance; and Jean-Baptiste joins the army to run from his mother’s shocking affair with the doctor. Speller magically connects the four lives in a way that’s moving and unforgettable as she explores their need for freedom, self-direction, hope, love and life purpose.
As we head into the 100 year anniversary of World War I in 2014, The First of July — captivating in storytelling and elegant in style — deserves a place at the top of the reading list. For this year, 2013, it’s among my year’s favorites.