Despite my (somewhat jaded) assumption that Gated would be yet another dystomance - a hooky premise masking some generic love-triangle angst – favouraDespite my (somewhat jaded) assumption that Gated would be yet another dystomance - a hooky premise masking some generic love-triangle angst – favourable reviews convinced me to pick it up, and I’m glad I did. Although I’ll admit I gave an involuntary eye roll at first mention of Lyla’s “Intended” (here we go..), my expectations turned out to be quite far off the mark.
This is a solid contemporary novel about a teenage girl living in a sheltered community, separated from society and lead by the charismatic Pioneer. Following personal and global tragedy, the Hamilton family along with several others retreat to build an isolated community they name Mandrodoge Meadows: a place where they can live in peace and wait for the end to come. Under the guidance of Pioneer’s visions, the Community believe themselves the chosen few who will survive, and plan to wait out the apocalypse in their purpose-built underground bunker.
Despite the pairing off each of the teenagers with an Intended, a teenager of the opposite sex that they will eventually marry, and the sudden appearance of an outsider boy, this is not a romance. The focus of Gated is firmly on Lyla’s life as someone who knows little about the outside world except what Pioneer has told her, and how doubt begins to creep in and undermine Pioneer’s indoctrination.
Parker succeeds in creating an unsettling atmosphere: outwardly, the Lyla enjoys a lifestyle of simplicity and community. Yet lurking at the edges of this idealised existence are the hints of Pioneer’s control and manipulation. This is a settlement of people who, while emotionally vulnerable, have been taken in by Pioneer’s claims of divine guidance. Seeking refuge from a world that has hurt them, they are eager to believe in the promise of deliverance from evil, a chance to create their world anew.
Parker ably portrays both the appeal and the insidiousness of Pioneer’s teachings, how he has preyed on the human vulnerabilities of grief and fear to proselytise. (Interestingly, Parker uses epigraphs from the fictional Pioneer alongside quotes from Jim Jones and Charles Manson.) Raised in such an atmosphere, Lyla’s parents and friends unquestioningly accept Pioneer’s vision of the end, their role as the chosen, and along with that, Pioneer’s abuse and conditioning. At the same time, it’s clear to the reader that this is an unstable and dangerous person wielding too much power, and it makes Lyla’s journey of doubt and realisation a compelling one, as she races against time and Pioneer’s paranoia toward the truth.
That said, not all of the plot developments are entirely believable, particularly when it comes to the climax of the novel. It is undoubtedly tense and thrilling, yet it’s difficult not question some of the choices made by the characters and the way events unfold during the dramatic scenes of confrontation between the members of the Community and the outsiders. Further, some of Lyla’s emotional navigation of questioning doctrine she has essentially grown up believing feels somewhat truncated or rapid.
On the other hand, Parker’s portrayal of the Community’s responses – from Lyla’s mother’s denial to her Intended’s anger and disbelief – feel authentic. The door is left suitably open on the ending, with acknowledgment of mixed feelings and varying degrees of acceptance. The story closes on a note of beginning, rather than finality, and that feels right for this particular story and the extreme mental stress of the characters.
Gated is an engaging novel that lives up to its intriguing premise. Parker delivers a tight psychological thriller that explores control and abuse, while maintaining an adequate pace. For readers looking for a YA novel that’s actually about cults and not just about forbidden romance, Gated should not disappoint. ...more
The Sky So Heavy is a story of disaster and survival; of human nature in a time of darkness and desperation.
In the wake of a catastrophic nuclear eveThe Sky So Heavy is a story of disaster and survival; of human nature in a time of darkness and desperation.
In the wake of a catastrophic nuclear event between unnamed countries, Australia is plunged into a nuclear winter with devastating repercussions. Alone in their Blue Mountains home, brothers Fin and Max Heath struggle to cope as cold and darkness descend, sickness sets in, and food and water run scarce. As supplies dwindle, the fabric of their suburban neighbourhood begins to deteriorate into suspicion and paranoia. Seemingly abandoned by the authorities, their small community is left to face starvation and illness unaided, and hope of rescue becomes increasingly dim.
From the beginning, Zorn delivers a strong, relatable voice in Fin. There’s an immediacy to his narration, a believable edge of wryness to his tone as he describes his ‘whiter than a loaf of Tip Top’ suburb in the Blue Mountains, life with his father and step-mother, his crush on neighbour Lucy Tennington.
Throughout the novel the choices Fin makes become increasingly difficult, with complex consequences. The decisions Fin makes begin to affect him emotionally, as he attempts to reconcile how his personal system of ethics has been skewed by the disaster. The issue of survival at what cost is compounded when Fin and Max join forces with Arnold Wong and Lucy Tennington, and head towards Sydney in the hope of locating Fin’s mother. Faced with the brutal realities of the outside world, there are no simple choices.
Much of Fin’s growth as a character is directly related to his companions: Max, the brother he’s fighting to protect; and Lucy, the girl who can protect herself. But most interesting of these relationships is that between Fin and Arnold. The resident outsider at school, Arnold was bullied and Fin is complicit in this. While it would have been easy to paint the interactions between these characters as Teachable Moments, Zorn carefully avoids this by refraining from any cheesy messages or unrealistic reconciliation scenes. Rather, she presents them as interesting counterpoints to each other: Arnold with his faith and personal tragedy, Fin with his guilt and doubt. Zorn is matter of fact about the racism and prejudice of their world, without excusing or glossing over it.
The most interesting aspect of The Sky So Heavy was, for me, the clear parallels between the post-nuclear event world Zorn depicts and current issues. If you’re familiar with recent Australian politics (and let’s face it, if you live here its fairly unavoidable...) the questions raised in TSSH will have ring of familiarity:
‘It’s like those people out in the ration line complaining about people from over the border taking their share. They have to believe that we’re greedy, ‘cause the idea that we were actually left to starve is just too awful.’
“Border security” (heavy, sarcastic quotation marks) is a major subject of the novel. Inner Sydney has been divided from the outer suburbs, with those on the inside receiving a measure of relief from the fallout. Those attempting to cross the border and seek refuge within the city do so at risk of death. By placing Fin and his companions in the role of refugees, and the not-so-subtly uttered sentiment that they should “go back where they came from”, Zorn’s novel takes a shot at the present fear mongering and moral dubiousness accompanying the issues of foreign policy and asylum seeking.
The Sky So Heavy is a solid, compelling novel of survival and hope. The questions it raises are not easy, nor are the answers. While not unrelenting bleak, this is a confronting novel in it’s portrayal of a country sunk into physical and moral darkness.
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Heartbeat is a novel about a teenage girl who is grieving. Hers is a complicated grief (and really, is there even such a thing as “uncomplicated” grieHeartbeat is a novel about a teenage girl who is grieving. Hers is a complicated grief (and really, is there even such a thing as “uncomplicated” grief?). Her mother is brain-dead and pregnant, being kept on life support in intensive care until such time as the baby can be delivered. So she is present, and yet not present: a state for which Emma blames her step-father, believing him to be acting against what her mother would have wanted in order to preserve the life of his son.
Emma’s grief is a consuming, powerful thing. She is angry. Hurt. Afraid. Scott’s portrayal of Emma’s grief is sharp and unflinching and honest. There is nothing neat and palatable about Emma’s emotional state. It is confronting and messy.
And some readers are incredibly uncomfortable with this.
Emma’s grief doesn’t always manifest in ways that are sympathetic. Yes, sometimes she is hostile. Sometimes she is selfish. But rather than a teenage girl struggling with intense pain, some only see an unlikeable “bitch”. Emma isn’t behaving in a way that they find palatable, therefore she is punishable.
At first, I was angry; furious on Emma’s behalf that her right to her emotions would be challenged, that she wasn’t grieving “acceptably” (which is a notion that, frankly, makes me rageful). Then I just felt sad. Scott’s exploration of grief is nuanced and authentic, yet the judgement levelled at Emma for her experience suggests that some would rather not see girls like this: hurting and angry. And I can’t help but think of those readers who might see something of themselves in Emma and her story, identify with the complexity of processing grief - who also see the clamours of “stupid”, “selfish” and “dumb” that portrayal is met with.
What’s notable about Elizabeth’s Scott’s body of work is her willingness to engage with difficult subjects, often ones met with blanket disapproval. But these things happen, Scott’s novels insist. They happen every day, to people just like us. Heartbeat – as well as Scott’s other work – addresses the fact that sometimes people do terrible, irreversible things with far reaching consequences. How does blame and guilt shape that person’s life? What does healing and forgiveness look like for a person in such a situation? Is it possible? Scott explores this in the relationship between Emma and Caleb, which is born of empathy and understanding between two people isolated by their pain. Yet their romance is not presented as some kind of fix for the characters’ respective situations, nor does it minimise the repercussions of their actions.
Heartbeat is an honest book, and as such it’s not going to be met with universal acceptance. And it should be enough for me to know that it will make its way into the hands of some readers who will identify with Emma and her emotional arc. Yet part of me still bristles when I see her criticised for not conforming to a very narrow ideal of acceptable emotional expression. I’m angry for her, and for all the teenagers who feel like her, at the idea that these feelings are somehow less valid, or should be edited for others’ comfort.
If Emma’s character is divisive then I’m stating right now that I’m firmly on her side. I want to see more of this: more honesty, more difficulty, more discomfort. Sometimes teenage girls are angry, or sad, or complicated. And that’s okay. ...more
“They will say ‘Agnes’ and see the spider, the witch caught in the webbing of her own fateful weaving. They might see the lamb circled by ravens, bl
“They will say ‘Agnes’ and see the spider, the witch caught in the webbing of her own fateful weaving. They might see the lamb circled by ravens, bleating for a lost mother. But they will not see me. I will not be there.”
On 12 January, 1830, the last instance of capital punishment in Iceland occurred when Friðrik Sigurðsson and Agnes Magnúsdóttir were executed in Vatnsdalshólar in Húnavatnssýsla, for the murder of two men.
While often painted as “monstrous”, a cold-blooded murderer, a figure of Lady Macbeth style ruthlessness - the truth is that there is a dearth of factual information about Agnes Magnusdottir. While the instrument of her execution – a broad axe – has been preserved, little is known about the life of the woman sentenced to death, and publicly beheaded. (A third person was also convicted: Sigridur Gudmundsdottir, whose sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment).
“They said I must die. They said that I stole the breath from men, and now they must steal mine.”
Burial Rites is the product of a ten year quest to uncover what remains of Agnes Magnusdottir’s life. Instigated by an exchange visit to Iceland after high school, Hannah Kent spent the ensuing years absorbed in intense archival research, examination of primary sources and retracing of Agnes’ steps from her birth to her final resting place. Kent called the result a “speculative biography”, a weave of fact and fiction, and her own “dark love letter to Iceland.”
While Burial Rites presents the question of whether history has misrepresented Agnes, the novel does not necessarily demand sympathy for her. It does, however, offer a more empathetic, albeit ambiguous, portrayal of a woman condemned – and an attempt to understand what circumstances might have led to her conviction in a double murder.
The result is an exquisitely beautiful novel. Kent’s prose is rich and clear, rendering the melancholic, claustrophobic atmosphere of the Icelandic winter and Agnes’ impending execution in evocative language. Agnes herself, awaiting death and exiled at the farm of a minor public servant, emerges from the pages vividly.
“Those who are not being dragged to their deaths cannot understand how the heart grows hard and sharp, until it is a nest of rocks with only an empty egg in it. I am barren; nothing will grow from me anymore. I am the dead fish drying in the cold air. I am the dead bird on the shore. I am dry, I am not certain I will bleed when they drag me out to meet the axe. No, I am still warm, my blood still howls in my veins like the wind itself, and it shakes the empty nest and asks where all the birds have gone, where have they gone?”
Kent writes with a kind of graceful maturity, a depth of emotion that befits the subject matter. This a story about a woman facing her imminent death, a woman with one final opportunity to speak her truth, and Kent captures the desperation, isolation and grief of Agnes with stunning clarity. The book is interspersed with Agnes’ inner monologues, and these sections are the most vivid; pouring forth in a steam of raw psychological pain and striking imagery.
Though she spent much of her life employed as a servant and a period of her childhood as an orphaned pauper thrown on the mercy of the parish, there is evidence to suggest that Agnes was also an intelligent and highly literate woman. And this is the version of Agnes that Kent chooses to portray; beneath the hard and icy veneer of a woman reviled and silenced, she is compelling, passionate and astute.
While living and working alongside Jón Jónsson and his family, fragments of Agnes’ story begin to emerge. As she confides in Tóti, the young assistant priest commissioned to reconcile her to her fate and to God, Agnes’ version of events takes shape as the remaining days of her life pass. Through this gradual unwinding, Tóti and the family come to confront the idea that the truth may not be all that it seems. While we already know how Agnes’ story ends, it’s this suggestion of dissonance between public opinion and her personal reality that fuel the novel’s tension. Burial Rites suggests that truth is open to interpretation, and is rarely as straightforward as commonly perceived. Fear, gossip and hatred twist the idea of Agnes into something horrifying and loathsome; an opinion no doubt perpetuated by the pervasive social, religious and sexual politics of the time.
To this end, Kent’s novel faithfully depicts life in 19th century Iceland, and is immersed in historical detail without the narrative being weighed down or bloated. It is clear that care has been taken to accurately represent the conditions of Agnes’ world, to reconstruct the framework of her life with as much integrity as possible. The gaps in historical record, which Kent has fleshed out with fiction, fit seamlessly within the broader context of time and place, resulting in a story that respects its origins.
We cannot know the entirety of Agnes Magnusdottir’s story, but Burial Rites asks us to remember her, if not reconsider how history may have buried her own truth with her body. Knutur Oskarsson, who accommodated Hannah Kent during part of the writing and research of the novel, stated: “I do believe that the execution of Agnes is still an unhealed wound in Iceland, in the history of Iceland.”
Burial Rites is a respectful and moving acknowledgment of that wound; a reminder that Agnes Magnusdottir’s voice once existed, even if it was lost to time. ...more