Review: ‘Eleanor & Park’ by Rainbow Rowell

“The new girl took a deep breath and stepped farther down the aisle. Nobody would look at her. Park tried not to, but it was kind of a train wreck/eclipse situation.

The girl just looked like exactly the sort of person this would happen to.

Not just new – but big and awkward. With crazy hair, bright red on top of curly. And she was dressed like … like she wanted people to look at her. Or maybe she didn’t get what a mess she was.”

Eleanor is the new girl in town who draws attention to herself the moment she steps on the bus, through her curly red hair and mismatched clothes. Park is the boy at the back of the bus who tries to go unnoticed by keeping his headphones on and his head down in a comic. Stuck next to each other for an hour a day, Eleanor and Park slowly, unintentionally and cautiously get to know each other, first through shared comics and mixed tapes, and then through late night phone calls. They fall in love, with nothing and everything to lose.

Eleanor & Park is written in third person omniscient, which is a refreshing change from the abundance of first person YA narratives. Splitting the perspective between Eleanor and Park allows the reader to gain some insight into the mind of each of the protagonists, however by writing in third person omniscient, Rainbow Rowell maintains a sense of distance between the characters and the reader. After all, this novel isn’t a story about absolute truths, nor does the novel offer a neatly rounded conclusion. The focus of Eleanor & Park is on the journey of discovery, of the little steps the characters make to learn more about themselves.

The beauty and power of the relationship between Eleanor and Park isn’t in what they say to each other, but what is left unsaid. The relationship is established through Eleanor (in)discretely reading a comic over Park’s shoulder, and through Park wordlessly lending her a comic for the first time. The timid exchange between the two characters is beautiful to follow, but as their family dynamics are explored it becomes apparent that what is being presented is not only shyness due to inexperience, but fear of reprisal from their respective families. Park is struggling with his sense of identity and what it means to be masculine; having his father constantly compare him to his brother does nothing to ease his anxiety. Eleanor’s mother and her siblings live in the flats with her abusive partner. The abuse inflicted upon Eleanor and her family is confronting, and Eleanor’s sense of helplessness is heartbreaking to follow. The relationship between Eleanor and Park offers them each an opportunity for learn about themselves and find a strength within themselves neither knew existed.

This book has been on my to-read list for a while. Seeing Rainbow Rowell at the 2016 Melbourne Writers Festival prompted me to finally go out and buy a copy.

I was fascinated by the original cover before I even read the synopsis – the simple yet so very intimate image of Eleanor and Park set apart, but joined together by earphones. This edition wasn’t available. Instead, I purchased the UK edition. The design is beautiful, and, similar to the US edition, suggests a distance yet also closeness between Eleanor and Park through the way they are placed on the page. But, as I read the novel I kept looking back at the cover – where was the ‘big and awkward’ girl with ‘crazy hair’? It’s refreshing to read a protagonist who isn’t a super slim blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl, and it felt like this cover diminished, or at the very least undersold, her character.

Eleanor & Park is a quintessential Young Adult novel, as it is all about the journey from innocence to experience, rather than the destination. As such, the ending was perfect. At the 2016 Melbourne Writers Festival Claire Zorn listed cited Eleanor & Park as a book she wished she had read as a teenager, and I can understand why. The characters are beautiful, complex and full of contradictions that make them feel like they could step out of the pages. The novel covers a broad range of issues, including young love, domestic abuse, body image, bullying, gender identity, peer pressure and racism, without seeming forced or heavy-handed. A brilliant read.

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Review: ‘The Knife of Letting Go’ by Patrick Ness

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But a knife ain’t just a thing, is it? It’s a choice, it’s something you do. A knife says yes or no, cut or not, die or don’t. A knife takes a decision out of your hand and puts it in the world and it never goes back again.

Todd Hewitt was born into an overcrowded swamp and an overcrowded cemetery called Prentisstown, a town where a germ has killed half the men and all the women. The surviving men have been driven mad by “Noise”, the ability to hear each other’s thoughts whether they want to or not. Todd will officially become a man in thirty days. He doesn’t know what that means, except he will finally know all of men’s business and be able to make choices about his own life. He is the youngest in Prentisstown, the last to yet reach manhood. The only companion he has is Manchee, a dog he never wanted who also has the “Noise” germ. Todd hears something he shouldn’t, sending him and Manchee running for their lives.

Narrated in the first person by the unlikely and unwilling hero, The Knife of Letting Go is not an easy read. Todd is perpetually frustrated at his status of an almost man. He has a great sense of self-importance, but no authority or knowledge to better his situation. What’s most appealing about Todd is, despite his limited knowledge and authority, he does not passively wait for someone to rescue him. Much of the tension throughout the novel is derived from watching Todd throw himself headfirst into any given situation, and waiting to see if he will be able to get himself out or drag others down with him.

Manchee has very little dialogue, but his earnestness, innocence and adoration of Todd is perfectly conveyed through two-worded questions, repetition and italicised emphasis. There are a host of minor characters Todd and Manchee meet along the way, and while many interactions are brief, there is enough nuance of individuality about each minor character to leave their presence lingering long after they disappear from the pages.

The layout and structure of The Knife of Letting Go is captivating. The 479-page book is split into 42 short chapters, with each short chapter ending with a hook. The “Noise” is visually represented through bold graphics and seminal fight scenes are intensified through poetic structure. The narration is filled with phonetic spelling to illustrate Todd’s illiteracy without satirising or belittling his character.

The Knife of Letting Go is, at its heart, an exploration of what it is to become a man and what sacrifices are to be made along the journey from innocence to experience. Many questions are raised throughout the novel (Why did all the women die? Why is Todd being hunted? What will happen when Todd officially becomes a man? Is there are cure for the “noise”? Will Todd face repercussions for his actions?) but not all of them are answered in this book. In many ways, it made reviewing this book difficult, as I am yet to finish reading the series. However, this did not detract from my overall enjoyment of this book. It is the poignancy of relationships forged, and the impact these relationships have on Todd’s search for a sense of place, that makes this novel beautiful.

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STRAY blog tour: Book review and interview with Rachael Craw

Back in 2014 I read and reviewed Spark, the début YA sci-fi novel by Rachael Craw (You can read my review here). It was one of the most thrilling reads that I’d read in a while. I interviewed Rachael about writing strong female characters and her writing process (You can read the interview here). Eagerly awaiting the release of Stray, the second book in the trilogy, I approached Walker Books and requested an advanced copy so I could review it. Claire, Rachael’s publicist, kindly supplied a copy and asked if I wanted to be a part of the Stray blog tour, which leads us to where we are now!

It’s important to note that my review is in no way influenced by Walker Books or Rachael.

Review: Stray by Rachael Craw

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Stray, the second book in Rachael Craw’s YA sci-fi trilogy, is set one month after the events of Spark. Aiden has been arrested and is being held in a detention facility. Kitty has thrown herself back into her social life. Evie is conflicted by her desire to hold onto her life – her romance with Jamie, her friendship with Kitty, and working out just what her relationship with Miriam is – and her need to rescue her brother. Stray follows Evie as she struggles with the responsibility she feels she has to find a way to prove Aiden has been deactivated, and the danger she knows she is about to put her loved ones in, in order to prove Aiden is no longer dangerous.

The faced-paced action and fast-pulsed sexual tension that dominated Spark carries through into Stray. But, while Spark was sprinkled with Whedonesque style banter between affable characters, Stray leaves little room for comic relief as Affinity makes its presence known, threatening to rip Evie’s world apart. The Affinity compound is a heart-pounding house of horrors, filled with masked medical teams, mind-splitting telepathic torture and The Executive watching it all behind black glass. Then there’s The Proxy, a complex character who is equally tragic as she is terrifying.

Over the course of Spark, Evie was prone to bouts of fainting due to being unaccustomed to her superhuman abilities, and often required rescuing by her “tribute to nature and science” love interest, Jamie. While Evie is still finding her feet in Stray, she is physically and mentally stronger, and therefore much more exciting to follow. But, this doesn’t mean Evie is any less fallible, as she learns the hard way that nobody is who they appear to be. There are surprising developments to other characters who featured in Spark, but any commentary on this would spoil the thrill of following them on their journey.

While it would have been helpful to have a glossary of the acronyms as a reminder the sci-fi terms explained in Spark, this didn’t detract from the story. Benjamin and Davis could have used with a bit more fleshing out, as they were almost interchangeable characters. Overall, Stray is a tightly-written progression from Spark that climaxes with a bloodied, gut-wrenching finale that promises to leave you looking at the final few chapters through blurry eyes. Shield, the final book in the trilogy, promises to be one hell of a ride.

Stray was published on 01 September. Shield will be published in 2016.
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Interview: Time-frames, Trilogies and Twitter – Rachael Craw on her writing process, the second time around

Congratulations on the success of Spark and on the release of Stray!

Thanks so much Liz, it’s exciting to finally see Stray going out into the world.

You mentioned during our last interview that it took you five and a half years to write Spark. What time-frame did you have to write Stray?

I had one year to write Stray though I did have a pre-existing manuscript to work with. I wrote it in the same year I wrote the first draft of Spark. However, I found it immensely challenging dealing with the rewrite. I wished several times that I had been brave enough to ditch it and start fresh but I was too much of a scaredy-cat. Ultimately I am so pleased with and proud of the final product but I found it was a struggle. In many ways writing the first draft of book 3 has been so much easier because I had nothing to work with. Well, actually, I had 50 pages of an old version of bk3 that I wrote years ago but it was all about Evie living with a character named Gabe who was cut from book 1. She was in Uni and trying to move on with her life. Gabe was her Cooler in the same way Helena is a Cooler for Jamie.  There was an ‘event’ that dragged Evie back into the world of the Affinity Project and back into the path of Jamie. I loved this old version because it was such a dramatic beginning for the reader who would have a face-slapping-Holy-Hell moment when they discovered Evie wasn’t with Jamie at the beginning of the book.

So, I had to dump all that because Gabe no longer exists and the story went a different way. But I’m not a planner so it was much better for me to write without the constraints of a pre-existing manuscript and follow the story’s natural direction.

Did having Spark already published help motivate you during your re-drafting of Stray, or did it put pressure on you?

I found it tremendously distracting having Spark out while working on Stray. It kept pulling my attention away from the work. I felt constantly divided in my loyalties and responsibilities. It’s been a much healthier ride working on book 3. I feel like I will manage it much better once Stray is out.

You’ve joked on Twitter about writing yourself into plot holes. As you were writing Stray did you ever want to go back and make changes to Spark? 

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Ha! Hmmm, that is such a good question. No. I don’t think there’s anything I would really want to change in terms of plot details. I think the constraints of the world in the pre-existing story demand creative solutions and actually forced me to lift my game and dig deep to find pathways to advance the plot. But yes, plenty of plot holes!!! Lots of brain-wracking to fill them in and make it all work.

What prompted you to write and digitally release the short stories, ‘Kill Switch’ and ‘The Black Room’?

The marketing team at Walker Books Australia requested a short story to go out with the promo-material when Spark was being launched and that’s how ‘Kill Switch’ came to be. I really enjoyed writing from the perspective of a Stray and exploring the horrors of genetically induced madness. I wrote ‘Black Room’ by myself when I was working on Stray, as a creative exercise to give me some instinct for Ethan Tesla’s background – he’s a new character you meet in Stray. It also gave me the ReProg room – a sinister interrogation chamber that didn’t exist in the first draft of Stray. That physical environment is almost like a character in the book so writing ‘Black Room’ was a tremendously profitable exercise. I then offered it to Walker to use for promotional purposes and they snapped it up.

Had you always planned to write a trilogy, or did you only come to realise while writing your first draft of Spark that the story needed the room of a trilogy?

I always wanted to write a trilogy because I was a fan of reading book series in childhood. I love revisiting old characters and going on new journeys with them. The relationships deepen, you get to see how characters grow and change over time, how they cope in new challenges. In the same way I loved following Buffy over seven years and Mulder and Scully through years of the X-Files (and now I’m working my way through Supernatural – don’t get me started #WinchesterWife) that commitment to characters draws me back over and over. I love that same experience in fiction also. With the Spark trilogy I had 3 main plots I wanted to explore so 3 books made sense.

What’s your favourite trilogy?

I was a BIG fan of the long running  Trixie Belden Mysteries (rural American teen detective) when I was a tween – there were nearly 40 books in that series. But for trilogy joy I can’t go past Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking. I LOVE.

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Do you read other YA sci-fi novels while working on this series, or steer clear?

I have very little knowledge of sci-fi fiction. It wasn’t a genre I ever spent time in as a reader. However, I have always loved sci-fi films, especially grimy future society in decline built on the detritus of obsolete technology type stories (think Blade Runner). I read a little bit of William Gibson at Uni which I loved but that was about it. I’ve only recently begun to read YA sci-fi but I imagine it’s counted as pretty light as far as the genre is concerned. But I have really enjoyed the Lunar Chronicles and the books by Amie Kaufman & Meagan Spooner.

You’re very active on social media. Do you allow yourself certain times to go on Facebook and Twitter?

Twitter

No. I have no restraint. I need an intervention. Save me.

As a writer, what are the greatest benefits of social media?

Getting outside of my head. Engaging with other human beings – even on the most basic level of sharing a laugh, a meme, whatever. It’s a very lonely business, book writing, so Twitter and FB keep me from going full hermit. The best part it is engaging with readers and authors. The YA community is hugely supportive.

You give a mighty roar of thanks to #SparkArmy in the Stray acknowledgements. What is the #SparkArmy?

The term Spark Army was first hurled into the Twitterverse during a fun chat with a bunch of YA bloggers. Kate from Fictional Thoughts coined the phrase first. It became a rallying hashtag for promoting the Spark Trilogy. Kelly from Diva Booknerd and Eugenia from Genie In A Book created a goodreads group under the name The Spark Army and the gals in that group helped to promote Jamie in the Sydney TeenCon Book Boyfriend battle. It’s amazing support for an unknown author like myself, something you think only happens for rockstars like JK Rowling or Casandra Clare. It may only be a handful of people but it’s a beautiful thing. People use the #SparkArmy hashtag for all things Spark related. Please feel free to use it!

You recently sent off Shield, the final manuscript in the trilogy, to your editor. If you were to write another trilogy, what would you do differently?

finished

I’m not sure I would change anything other than making sure my deadlines don’t clash with book launches. Spark came out on the same day my first draft of Stray was due in. It was a nightmare. This time has been so much better. Other than that I don’t think I would change anything.

Do you have other projects on the horizon?

Right now all of my creative energy is focused on completing the Spark Trilogy but my subconscious brain is ticking away and there are a couple of seeds sending out roots. I will let you know!

 

Stray Blog Tour

September 1
Happy Indulgence | Diva Book Nerd
September 2
Behind the Pages | Cassie the Weird | YA Midnight Reads
September 3
Liz McShane Blog | Imaginary Misadventure
September 4
Fictional Thoughts | Genie in a Book
September 5
Kids Book Review | Books for a Delicate Eternity | Nicole Has Read
September 6
Loony Literate | Book Nerd Reviews
September 7
Striking Keys | Very Dark Horse
Subscribe to Rachael’s newsletter here
@RachaelCraw | RachaelCraw.com

Review: ‘A Monster Calls’ by Patrick Ness. Inspired by an idea by Siobhan Dowd

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Stories are important, the monster said. They can be more important than anything. If they carry the truth.

Equally poignant and heart-breaking, A Monster Calls is a story about opposites – life and death, truth and lies. Thirteen-year-old Conor wakes up from a nightmare at 12:07 to find a monster, formed out of a yew tree, outside of his bedroom window. It is not the monster from his nightmare, but it is a monster nonetheless. By day, Conor is dogged in his determination to maintain a normal home life with his sick mother, but struggles with how students and teachers at school treat him. By night, the yew tree monster tells Conor tales that leave him confused and angered by their meaning, more so when they seem to fail to explain why the yew monster is there at all.

A Monster Calls, based on the idea by Siobhan Dowd, who passed away before she could write the story, perfectly captures the delicacy of grief. Patrick Ness weaves the mythical fables of the Yew tree monster stories with the day-to-day numbing frustration of feeling ostracised by people who, faced with the threat of coming across as insensitive or inappropriate, treat the grieving with heightened artificial sympathy or complete indifference.  

The hard cover edition contains haunting yet beautiful illustrations by Jim Kay that encapsulate the foreboding mood of the story. While aimed at the YA market (13+), this book is an important read, not just for those who have felt suffocated and confused by grief, but also for any reader who appreciates masterful story-telling. The subject matter of A Monster Calls is heart-breaking, but its treatment of the subject matter is beautiful and ultimately full of hope.

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Review: ‘The Sky so Heavy’ by Claire Zorn

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Set in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, The Sky So Heavy is a dystopian YA that follows Fin Heath, his 12-year-old, quick-witted brother Max, friend and schoolyard crush Lucy Tenningworth, and classmate Arnold Wong as they are thrown together in a survival quest following a nuclear missile disaster.

There have been numerous comparisons with John Marsden’s Tomorrow series, which actually kept this book on my ‘to read’ shelf longer. The Tomorrow series had such a huge impact, I didn’t want to be comparing the two. Thankfully, I found the comparison to be too far-reaching. The Tomorrow series is an action-packed guerrilla warfare, whereas The Sky So Heavy is a slow-burn, psychological journey. The perpetrators of the missile launch are never revealed, as the focus of the novel is centred on how much of their own humanity the characters are willing to risk in order to survive, rather than any direct involvement in the conflict. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness are referenced throughout, reinforcing the themes of survival and the treatment of refugees.  The title, The Sky So Heavy, encapsulates the mood and pace of the novel, as the characters at first attempt to wait out the nuclear fall-out, before realising that time and resources may run out.

The strength of the novel lies in the relationship between the characters. The characters are quickly established as multidimensional and flawed. Fin’s mother is, for the most part, out of the picture, having left her family to pursue work in a disaster management position with the government, with the added bonus of a boyfriend. Fin’s dad is preoccupied with proving to the world that he is not too old for his new wife. Max is on the threshold of adolescence and grappling between wanting to be treated like an adult and maintaining a semblance of security by acting like a child. Lucy is emotionally and physically resilient, but reluctant to take the lead when it comes to her relationship with Fin. Fin is a refreshingly flawed narrator, as he downplays his role of having bullied Arnold Wong since they were at primary school together.

If anything, it felt like I didn’t know enough about the characters in order to feel any major emotional impact. Having said that, the fact that many of the characters withheld information from each other and the reader added to the realism of their situation and character. Fin reveals that he read the letter his mum had intended for only his father to read when she left, but Fin stops short of revealing the exact content of the damning letter. Arnold spent most of his life being bullied by Fin (whether directly, or indirectly), but still goes with him. The ending was satisfying, as, in keeping with the overall tone, it does not attempt to resolve all of the questions it poses. An enjoyable read.

 

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Review: Spark by Rachael Craw

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Seventeen year-old Evangeline Everton doesn’t have a choice. Struggling to come to terms with the death of her mother, and anxious about returning to school, Evie has nightmares, pins and needles, a quickened pulse and a tightening chest. She develops an inexplicable need to be close to her best friend, Kitty, and an intense attraction to Kitty’s twin brother, Jamie. But, her physical symptoms and intense social dependencies are more than mere signs of severe anxiety.

Evie’s DNA has pre-determined that she is a Shield, created to protect a Spark. Strays kill Sparks. So, when Kitty is attacked, Evie is suspected of being a Stray to Kitty’s Spark. When Kitty is attacked a second time, Evie’s speed, strength, connectedness to and protectiveness of Kitty proves that she is her Shield. But, it is not enough for Evie to protect Kitty from an attack – Kitty will only be safe if Evie kills the Stray.

Spark, the début novel by YA author Rachael Craw, follows Evie as she tries to understand and control her abilities, her over-protective pull to Kitty and her intense desire for Jamie, while also trying to find out who the Stray is and mentally and physically prepare herself to kill it.

Spark is, for the most part, a thrilling read. Narrated by Evie, her developing super-human abilities are cleverly tangled up with her anxieties about her relationships with her friends and her aunt and guardian, Miriam. The only disruption to the otherwise fast-paced narrative is the exposition of the sci-fi elements. Evie starts evolving into a Shield faster than any Shields have before her, which sets her up as an exciting character to follow, but also makes it harder for the reader to develop an understanding of the sci-fi elements. Explanations of Shields, Strays, Sparks, Kinetic Transference and other sci-fi elements are staggered throughout the book, as none of the knowledgeable characters want to overwhelm Evie with information. While the staggered exposition makes for a slightly disjointed read, it doesn’t cause a major disruption to the flow of the story.

Rachael Craw writes in the biography section at the back of the book that she created Spark because she wanted to create a feisty female character. Spark is primarily concerned with the development of Evie’s abilities. Evie spends the early part of the story swooning and fainting, which would put her in the passive damsel category, if not for the justification that her body is initially overwhelmed by her transition to a Shield. As she gains an awareness of her abilities, Evie develops an assertive drive and evolves into a feisty and both mentally and physically strong young woman.

The banter between Evie and some of the minor characters, coupled with the antagonist, Richard, being nicknamed Dick, makes Spark a fun read. The sci-fi elements of the fight scenes were easy to visualise and the flirtations between characters were swoon-worthy. Bonus points for Craw’s homage to Buffy, the Vampire Slayer. Spark answers all of the major questions it sets up, while ending with a series of new captivating complications that will be explored in the second book of the trilogy, Stray.

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Review: Narrative structure in ‘Burial Rites’ by Hannah Kent

Burial Rites is a compelling début historical fiction novel by Hannah Kent that explores the life of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last woman to be executed in Iceland. In 1829, Fridrik Sigurdsson, the son of the farmer at Katadalur, and Agnes Magnúsdóttir and Sigrídur (Sigga) Gudmundsdóttir, Illugastadir workmaids, are convicted of the murders of Natan Ketilsson, a herbalist and owner of Illugastadir, and Pétur Jónsson, a convicted robber. All three are sentenced to death. Agnes is delivered into the custody of District Officer Jón Jónsdóttir. She awaits her sentence at his home under the watchful eyes of his wife Margrét and their daughters Steinvör (Steina) and Sigurlaug (Lauga). Agnes prepares for death by recounting her story to her spiritual advisor, Assistant Reverend Thorvardur Jónsson (Tóti).

The focus of the novel is not on the crime itself – Agnes has already been convicted and is waiting to die – the question is whether she was fairly judged. The reliability of characters’ perceptions of events and of one another are explored through different narrative perspectives. There is no single authoritative voice in the novel, as it alternates between first-person narration by Agnes, and third-person narration, primarily from the perspectives of Tóti and Margrét. Switching between perspectives creates suspense and prevents the reader from getting too engrossed or dependant on one narrator. The prejudices of other characters and the perception of Agnes as a hardened criminal are explored through third-person narration. First-person narration allows Agnes to intimately and selectively convey her experience to other characters, and to convey to the reader her fears of sharing those experiences.

The emotive and intimate exchanges between Agnes and her captors contrasts heavily to the historical documents that open each chapter of the book. The documents add an authenticity and depth to the story while also dehumanising and damning Agnes and her co-accused. The absolute damnation by the courts is conveyed at the outset in letters from District Commissioner Björn Blöndal, who writes ‘…after the anticipated authorisation from the Supreme Court in Copenhagen, I intend to execute the Illugastadir murderers’.  The bleakness of Agnes’ existence is exemplified through court documentation of her meagre belongings, which include ‘a white sack with useless odds and ends in it’ and ‘an old shift of faded blue’. The public perception of Agnes as a calculated murderer is communicated through the poems of Poet-Rósa, which include the lines ‘For you have stolen with your scheming / he who gave my life meaning, / and thrown your life to the Devil to deal.’

While Agnes’ story is bleak, Burial Rites is by no means a depressing read, as hope is offered by questioning those in power and by providing a voice to the powerless. Hannah Kent is currently working on her second book, a historical novel set in 19th-century Ireland.

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