Thursday, 5 September 2013

An Icelandic evening. In Chelsea.

I'd forgotten how aggressive lycra cyclists can be, so it was a relief to turn onto Fulham Road behind a woman in a red dress and high wedges. At Daunt Books I pulled up behind a woman with a crisp bob sitting very upright on a basket-front bike. I wasn't alone riding in a dress, but felt conspicuous wearing a helmet.

Beside the bike stands was a group of almost thirties smoking and comparing stories of their Trans-Siberian railway adventures.

Chelsea.

I'd spent the afternoon in my sunny courtyard (in a different seven letter suburb beginning with 'C') reading the last 100 pages of Burial Rites. Another strong contrast - last London summer heat and the last days of Agnes in northern Iceland's January dark.

The Icelandic evening was a discussion between debut author Hannah Kent and novelist, travel writer and academic, Sarah Moss. Both women went to Iceland at a young age, and it had left a powerful impression that clearly hasn't faded.

When she was 19, Sarah was awarded a scholarship to "contemplate natural beauty", and caught a ferry from Aberdeen to Iceland where she and a friend spent six weeks of summer travelling around. It was just a beginning for her, and always wanting to go back the opportunity came up for her and her family to spend 2009-10 in Reykjavik.


Hannah finished school knowing she wanted to be a writer, but unsure of what else she should pursue to supplement this tenuous career choice. She applied for a Rotary exchange, nominating Switzerland, Sweden and Iceland as her countries of choice.
At 17, she had never seen snow.

Though their Icelandic experiences were very different, there was obviously a challenging settling-in time. Sarah, with her husband and two sons, working in a city, depended on strangers to help with the simplest things, like buying a bus ticket. Hannah left Adelaide's 40 degree summer to arrive in a remote village in northern Iceland, trapped by snow and at the mercy of the weather. Where Sarah felt anonymous in a crowd, everyone knew who Hannah was, and the spectacle of being a stranger was disconcerting at first.

I haven't read Names for the Sea, but was interested that she used the form of a novel to get away from  the rigour of thorough truth to fact. She enjoyed the freedom of fiction.

Hannah's "subjective non-fiction" novel is the product of extensive research and the desire to reflect the story of the last executions in Iceland with respect for the people and place.

The synergy between these women's stories is the power of the landscape. Both take on a sort of reverence describing walks in the unending summer light, the bizarreness of volcanic gullies, the mountains, the isolation of an island where weather dictates what you can do each day.

It's as moving listening to the writers speak as it is to read the story of Agnes Magnusdottir.

The May release of Burial Rites was so highly anticipated in Melbourne when I was there in February, that I was desperate to get my hands on it when it was released in the UK. And in the spate of fabulous books I've read lately - I mean it had to follow Stoner - it easily gets 5 stars from me.

And Hannah's next book? Well I didn't get much time to talk to her about that as there was a long queue for signings, but it's set in Ireland, based on a story she's heard about superstition. I'd get ready for another evocative tale.

And if you're looking for a review of Burial Rites, rather than a response to it, Isabelle Costello has literally just posted a wonderful one here.

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