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‘Burial Rites’ by Hannah Kent

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The debut novel ‘Burial Rites’ by Hannah Kent is an engaging read, and it also offers us an interesting insight into the standards of literacy in Scandinavia.

Kent recreates an era of Icelandic history with an engaging insight into how tough life for ordinary people was in the cruel climate of Iceland in the 1820s. For a first novel this is extremely good. It is a well structured and it is clearly well researched.

The crime, and the punishment by death, of Agnes Magnusodottir, the novel’s protagonist, is historically well documented, but there are a variety of explanations as to why the crime was committed, and Agnes’s role in this. A niggling doubt as I read the novel was to my mind the excessive sympathy extended to Agnes. Nevertheless, on reading Kent’s author’s notes I was relieved to note that many interpretations of events held a common view that Agnes was ‘an inhuman witch stirring up murder.’ Kent then makes it very clear that although the names of people and places are accurate, this is very much an interpretation of why Agnes went on to commit such a deed. The bleak loneliness and the desolation of the Icelandic landscape also went some way in explaining how desperate people could also become.

One of the major issues of writing a narrative from the perspective of a serving woman from the 1820s is whether a series of servants, and Agnes in particular, would be articulate enough to be a series of voices in a novel that covers such complex social and psychological issues and events. Kent goes on to explain that she could create such a vibrant and articulate voice for Agnes by informing the reader that ‘The high level of literacy shown but the characters is historically accurate. Icelanders have had almost universal literacy rates since the end of the 19th Century’ If Icelanders can achieve this in the bleakest most challenging of natural conditions, why are we still struggling with the bottom 20% of illiteracy in Britain today? Unfortunately, I don’t have an answer. Could it be:
• They have a smaller, largely indigenous, population
• Only the strongest survive such bleak conditions
• If everyone is literate they can pass this on to their children and alleviate generational illiteracy
• How literacy is measured
• The influence of the church combined with the oral traditions of telling folk stories.
I do know that successive governments often turn to Scandinavia for answers to our own issues, and I never really understood why.
Can we really be compared?

There was yet another report issued this morning stating how low the literacy levels of the children leaving Primary school. The reasons for this are more than large enough to fill another blog and more. Singapore is the latest research conducted by MPs. This coincides with the launch of the new ‘really difficult’ curriculum for students was announced on 1st September on the back of this research. Programming for 5 year olds… 12 times table a year earlier than they have to learn it now were the headline grabbing changes.

At the other end of the spectrum, in 1999 I went on holiday to Sri Lanka, we were meeting some relatives of some friends of ours and they wanted us to visit their school. The provisions they had were so limited, but they did their very best to improve the lives of their students. We also visited the tea planting regions in the North and we were told that if we gave the children pens this would allow them to access the school system. As we wandered the streets and the fields, we distributed as many pens as possible, and received immense and unnecessary gratitude for this. One of my friends went to Sri Lanka in June as part of a Durham County initiative. She enjoyed the experience immensely, but she also said it was extremely sobering to see just how little both the teachers and the students had, and that whatever difficulties she may face, they pale into significance in comparison.

Ultimately, we have a great deal of expertise in our schools, and we need to channel this into maintaining the success that we have achieved, whilst still working towards totally eliminating illiteracy in society. We may struggle for resources and time, and it is a major job, but we do have the skills and the will to at least try to achieve this.