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I haven’t posted since the end of October last year. The past four months have been rough, and I’ve had a hard time deciding how to write about them. How to come back to this blog.

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This book has travelled with me since I first moved to Korea in 2008. It’s been helpful at least twice before – evidenced by (first) green pencilled underlining and (second) orange highlighting. This year I’ve returned to it again; specifically, to Part III: Transforming Suffering. And I’m coming back to this blog now as a way of understanding my own thoughts on suffering. Hopefully they might be of use to others, as well.

Suffering is natural

If your basic outlook accepts that suffering is a natural part of your existence, this will undoubtedly make you more tolerant towards the adversities of life.

There is this initial feeling of: Why is this happening to me? It’s not fair, I don’t deserve this. It’s easy to forget that, of course, this isn’t just happening to me. Not by a long shot. Everyone – at some point in their lives – suffers. The Dalai Lama even goes so far as to say that ‘suffering is the most basic element that we share with others, the factor that unifies all living creatures’. So why is it so hard to feel this? I think it’s partly because we have an inclination to see ourselves as the centre of the universe. And partly because – at least in Australia – we are so good at hiding suffering (‘as suffering becomes less visible, it is no longer seen as part of the fundamental nature of human beings’). We have become experts at pretending everything is always okay, and that ‘okay’ is the natural order of things. Which results in a crisis when something – inevitably – goes wrong.

These last few months have made me acutely aware of the fact that anything can happen to anyone, at any time. Which, at first, is a terrifying thought. But once you start to realise that this is, actually, the essence of being alive it starts to feel kind of enlightening. Like you are seeing reality for the first time. Letting go of that feeling of abnormality is hugely freeing; it has allowed me to accept whatever I’m feeling, and to experience those feelings as part of life.

Suffering makes us more compassionate

The vulnerability we experience in the midst of our suffering can open us and deepen our connection with others.

Suffering makes us more aware of our connection to other ‘living creatures’, and it also makes us aware of how caring those creatures can be. And, by extension, how caring we ourselves are capable of being. Suffering shows us just how important that care is, even in small doses. I’ve been lucky enough to realise how much of a difference it can make when people visit, or smile, or send flowers, or make you a sandwich. It’s something of a relief to know how much such seemingly little gestures can matter. There is hope in the tiny things. It makes me feel less helpless; like the things I do – in turn – for other people will in fact be worth something.

Suffering makes us stronger

A tree with strong roots can withstand the most violent storm, but the tree can’t grow roots just as the storm appears on the horizon.

I’ve used this quote a lot in my teaching practice, but I don’t think I’ve really understood it until now. Suffering itself tests our metal and forces us to build up our resistance, like exercising a muscle. But it also reminds us that suffering is inevitable, and that there will always be more to face. It reminds us to be ready, to grow our roots during the good times, so that the next time things go bad we will be better able to cope.

I’ve started to think more about suffering. Not in a mulling, depressed way, but more like a meditation. A mental rehearsal. When the next lot of bad news comes, how will I face it? How will I act? In what ways will I want to be ready? Instead of praying that bad things won’t happen, I’m planning for how I will deal with them when they do. It’s a calmer way of being, and one that feels much more realistic. I don’t have any control over the suffering that comes to me – any more than a forest has control over a wildfire – but I can control my response to that suffering.

Suffering strengthens the mind and makes it more flexible; it helps us grasp the big picture, as well as the details. Suffering helps us, by shifting our perspective, to see all of life.

Suffering deepens our experience

‘Don’t turn away. Keep your gaze on the bandaged place. That’s where the light enters you.’ – Rumi

In the past four months or so I’ve felt anxious, depressed, angry and defeated. But I’ve also had moments of real happiness and calm, even during the worst weeks. And sometimes that sense of happiness has felt larger, somehow, than anything I’ve felt in the past. I’ve slowed down. I’ve made time for the things that I love doing, and I’ve enjoyed them more. I’ve noticed things, felt things. Like patting a puppy, or watering plants, watching a good movie, riding in the back of a ute. I’ve heard people say that having a sense of mortality can make you appreciate life; that the quality of life, the way you use it, improves when you realise what a tightrope walk you’re on. I always imagined it would be a bittersweet feeling, and sometimes it is. But sometimes it is just sweet.

Life is change. ‘At any given moment, no matter how pleasant or pleasurable your experience may be, it will not last’. Really knowing this, as cliched as it may sound, does make moments feel richer. The Art of Happiness quotes Victor Frankl, a Jewish psychiatrist who was imprisoned during World War II: ‘Man is ready and willing to shoulder any suffering as soon and as long as he can see a meaning in it.’ For me – and I’m only just coming to this realisation now as I write this – I think that meaning is closely tied to suffering itself. Meaning lies in the knowledge that life and suffering are one and the same thing, and that to have life without suffering is not to fully experience it. Like travelling and only staying in fancy resorts, never sleeping on a beach or riding on the back of a motorbike. Meaning is how much more amazing those little moments – reading in bed, running, hearing a song – are when they are juxtaposed with suffering. And meaning is also finding out how compassionate people can be, and how strong, when faced with suffering.

Suffering often seems to occur at random, senselessly and indiscriminately, with no meaning at all.

It does seem that way. It seems unfair, and badly timed, and unnatural. But it really isn’t. And realising this gives it meaning. Reflecting on suffering has allowed me to keep going. To write and work and come back to this blog. It has allowed me to do life, day to day, slowly, not too sadly, and – surprisingly often – sweetly.

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Reading Anaïs Nin’s journals last month reminded me of this collection of extracts from the diary of Virginia Woolf, written between 1918 and 1941. I dug my battered copy – not looked at since uni days – out of the bottom of the bookshelf and have been dipping into it as a way of procrastinating/keeping myself motivated. This post is a quick list of some of the thoughts that I’ve found the most interesting …

-Life piles up so fast that I have no time to write out the equally fast rising mound of reflections.

-The habit of writing thus for my own eye is good practice. It loosens the ligaments.

-The main requisite … is not to play the part of the censor, but to write as the mood comes or of anything whatever.

-I want to write nothing in this book that I don’t enjoy writing. Yet writing is always difficult.

-I write … every morning now, feeling each day’s work like a fence which I have to ride at, my heart in my mouth till it’s over, and I’ve cleared, or knocked the bar out.

-Why is life so tragic; so like a little strip of pavement over an abyss. I look down; I feel giddy; I wonder how I am ever to walk to the end.

-The truth is … that writing, even here, needs screwing of the brain.

-You must put it all in before you can leave out.

-I am writing down the fidgets, so no matter if I write nonsense.

-The creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.

… and back to work.

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I believe language has power.

Reading about writing. This $2 Saturday morning op-shop find is aIMG_20170928_171739 welcome companion while I’m struggling through the first draft of my novel. Op-shoppers can’t be choosers, so I’ve had to skip Volume One and jump right into the years 1934-1939, where Anaïs finds herself in France on the edge of the Spanish Civil War. In 2017 I’m in Australia, reading in my morning Twitter feed about Trump declaring war on North Korea, and more Rohingya refugees fleeing genocide in Myanmar. And when Anaïs writes about buying a newspaper and reading of “Massacres. Blood. Tortures. Cruelty. Fanaticism” I can’t help but feel that even though eighty years have passed the only thing that has really changed is the media’s medium.

I cling to the world made by the artists because the other is full of horror, and I can see no remedy for it.

Anaïs doesn’t believe in politics. “Art has been my only religion,” she writes. But she isn’t simply trying to escape reality, or to pretend we live in a perfect world. Anaïs is no Romantic. On the contrary, she writes that romanticism is a form of neurosis:

It stems from the same source, a hunger for perfection, an obsession with living out what one has imagined.

Despair, Anaïs muses, occurs when the search for perfection, for a universal meaning, fails:

There is not one big cosmic meaning for all, there is only the meaning we each give to our life, an individual meaning, an individual plot, like an individual novel, a book for each person.

Art, for Anaïs, is the giving of this personal meaning, the writing of our own individual novels. Art does not hide reality, but transforms it, illuminates it. And it is hard work – an ongoing, active process that requires daily practice:

The assaults of reality are more and more violent. It becomes more and more difficult to maintain an individually beautiful or integrated world. I have to kill one dragon a day, to maintain my small world from destruction.

Hope is hard. And happiness, Anaïs writes, is “precarious and dangerous … because of what is happening around me. I am always tightrope dancing.” There are times when she feels overwhelmed, “when all I have lived … comes up in my throat, drowns me.” But she survives, finds the good in life, through writing:

I live in a period of dissolution and disintegration … I thought I too would dissolve. But my diary seems to keep me whole.

Reading Anaïs – a writer who is perhaps more well known for her journals than her fiction – is a timely reminder of the power of language. It might not change the world, or even influence political policy, but it can – on an individual level – shape our experience and keep us alive. “I keep on writing in the diary,” Anaïs admits, “a writing which is not writing but breathing.”

Writing keeps alive in us the instinct – possibly naive but admirable in its doggedness – to keep going in the face of an often awful world. An instinct that combines our biological drive to survive with our capacity to create. “Our need to dream,” Anaïs writes, “in the middle of ugliness and a monstrous reality.” Reading these journals has renewed my motivation to write, both creatively and in my own diary. This little op-shop treasure has rescued me, in part, from the despair that can come from too much time to think:

Introspection is a devouring monster. You have to feed it with much material, much experience, many people, many places, many loves, many creations, and then it ceases feeding on you.

So thank you, Anaïs, for helping to feed my introspection. Hopefully this post will go some way towards feeding someone else’s.

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IMG_20170725_160931The last few weeks have, to say the least, been frustrating. Without going into detail, I’m stuck in limbo waiting for the wheels of bureaucracy to turn. The result is a lot of free time, and a lot of restless anxiety. Unable to concentrate on a novel, I decided to re-read this book by Alain de Botton. I was hopeful, as Epicurus was, that philosophy might help “drive away the suffering of the mind.”

I first read The Consolations of Philosophy about five years ago, when I was living in South Korea. My little-black-book-of-quotes is full of wisdom from this volume, and I have drawn consolation from it over the intervening years. De Botton’s explanation of Seneca’s philosophy, for example – “We may be powerless to alter certain events, but we remain free to choose our attitude towards them” – has been enormously helpful in dealing with my diabetes diagnosis. Coming back to it now, I’ve found reassurance in the way the ideas in this book help create perspective. It’s grounding to re-think the basics of existence every now and then, particularly when existence isn’t going exactly to plan. Here are some of the main ideas that have helped me navigate my thinking:

  • Frustration and stress are products of “dangerously optimistic notions” of reality

There is only one inborn error, and that is the notion that we exist in order to be happy (Schopenhauer)

Basically, we need to lower our expectations of the world around us. When we expect things to work out, and then they don’t, the result is anger, frustration, stress, anxiety. The less we expect, the less we are disappointed. It sounds a bit depressing, but it’s more about being realistic than pessimistic. The world is not here to make us happy. Nature is indifferent to whether we suffer or don’t. Further, suffering is a natural and inevitable part of life. Believing that any suffering we face is unfair or unnatural only increases the pain we feel.

  • Friends are important

He became himself on the page as he had been himself in the company of his friend (De Botton on Montaigne)

Both Epicurus and Montaigne specifically mention friendship as being a vital part of a good life. This is pretty obvious, but it’s easy to overlook. Friends give us a chance to be ourselves, they reaffirm our own experiences, thoughts and feelings by sharing and understanding – rather than judging – them. I’m very grateful for all the wonderful friends I have, and I need to spend more time appreciating (and enjoying) these relationships.

  • Nature is important

Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better. (Einstein)

Schopenhauer turned to the natural sciences in order to better understand human behaviour; Montaigne was interested in investigating and writing about his natural bodily functions; Nietzsche was a big fan of plant metaphors and – for a brief time – became a gardener. When human thinking gets too convoluted and confusing, taking some time out to consider how nature gets things done can bring a lot of clarity.

  • Art is important

[A]rt and philosophy help us … to turn pain into knowledge (De Botton on Schopenhauer)

For Epicurus, art is the antidote to advertising. Art shows us what we truly need (friendship, thought, freedom) stripped of all the crap advertising tells us we need (the latest iPhone, a fancy notebook, a new car). Art also, like friendship, reflects our experiences and helps us understand and cope with pain and suffering. A poet creates a story about a specific character that deals with universal themes, which we in turn – as readers – can relate back to our own individual experiences.

  • Simplicity is important

We are richer than we think, each one of us. (Montaigne)

It is possible to over-think things. It is also possible to over-write, and over-educate. Life doesn’t have to be so complicated. There is value in our own experiences, and in how we process and use those experiences. As humans we are intelligent, but we are also often impulsive and foolish. As Montaigne notes, “Our life consists partly in madness, partly in wisdom: whoever writes about it merely respectfully and by rule leaves more than half of it behind.” Don’t just write about the complicated, universal stuff. Write about the specific, the individual. Write about the small and sometimes embarrassing details of what it’s like to be human. And don’t use big fancy words to do it.

  • Difficulty is important

[I]n the gap between who we wish one day to be and who we are at present, must come pain, anxiety, envy and humiliation. (De Botton on Nietzsche)

Not only should we expect life to be difficult, we should be thankful for those difficulties. It is through pain and suffering that we are given the chance to grow, to learn, to become better. Every time we are faced with something hard, we should look at it as a challenge. As an opportunity to become stronger, more compassionate, smarter, or – perhaps in my particular case – more patient. De Botton puts it beautifully when he writes: “We must, between periods of digging in the dark, endeavour always to transform our tears into knowledge.”

I’ve read this book before. I’ve heard and thought about all of these ideas numerous times. But it is always useful and enlightening to come back to them again, to review them in a new context. Re-reading de Botton hasn’t solved my problem, but it has helped me accept and deal with it. I’m still waiting, but I’m waiting a little less anxiously.

Since I finished uni last month I’ve been on a bit of a reading spree. My book binge is thanks – in large part – to Text Publishing, who generously provided me with a wonderful selection of middle grade and young adult fiction. This post is an attempt to capture the joyful, heartbreaking and happily-strange experience of reading for kids and young adults.

IMG_20170625_082919I started with last year’s Text Prize winner – Beautiful Mess by Claire Christian (in the form of an uncorrected proof). Thanks to my six-month-old puppy the spine of this book is now its own beautiful mess, but this didn’t stop me finding a place for it on my bookshelf. Beautiful Mess is a novel that treats IMG_20170625_082952teenage readers as young adults – its characters are flawed, there is no happily-ever-after ending … And yet there is hope. Beautiful Mess is funny, engaging and overwhelmingly honest. This is a novel capable of rekindling a love of reading; a friend recently emailed me to say that the sixteen-year-old she had given Beautiful Mess to had previously lost interest in reading, but now loves it again. What writer could ask for a better review than that?

 

IMG_20170625_155816Goodbye Stranger by American author Rebecca Stead sits somewhere between middle grade and young adult fiction. I was drawn in by the characters and the story almost immediately. Reading a book like this (especially in winter) is like getting into a warm bath – cosy and totally immersive. I loved the little details of this novel – Bridge and her cat ears, Sherm’s unsent letters – and how they wound themselves into a larger message about the meaning of life. Goodbye Stranger also tackles some difficult issues – such as relationships and social media – in ways that reveal the complex motivations behind teenage behaviour.

Iris and the Tiger (Leanne Hall) and Elizabeth and Zenobia (Jessica Miller) seem IMG_20170625_082903geared towards younger readers, though the ideas in both of these novels are complex. What struck me most about these two books was the element of surrealism running through them. Iris and the Tiger is based around surrealism in art, and suggests – through the protagonist’s encounters with a number of unreal and unusual creatures – that art (and life) is all about perception. Elizabeth and Zenobia – a dark tale of grief and ghosts – creates an atmosphere that is increasingly strange, fantastic, and creepy.

IMG_20170625_082829I also read a couple of young adult novels from the Text Classics collection. Hills End by Ivan Southall was first published in 1962, and feels like a darker and more complex Enid Blyton story. A post-disaster survival tale that skips easily between perspectives to reveal the insecurities of each character, Hills End avoids the traditional adults-to-the-rescue ending. I can’t believe I have never encountered this novel before now. Likewise I for Isobel by Amy Witting, IMG_20170625_082817the first novel for young adults I’ve ever read that is written in an almost stream of consciousness style. This book is internal to the point of feeling claustrophobic at times, but beautifully written. And very dark. Like Beautiful Mess, I for Isobel doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to theme, starting with the trauma of being born to a mother who doesn’t (can’t?) love her children. I found a lot to like about this book, and it definitely warrants a re-read.

IMG_20170625_082759I finished with Kimberly Brubaker Bradley’s novel The War That Saved My Life, set during World War II in London and rural England. I absolutely loved this book. From the very beginning I was right there beside Ada and Jamie as they are evacuated from London before the city is bombed. Again, this is a book for kids that doesn’t shy away from difficult experiences and emotions. Like I for Isobel, Ada is processing the trauma of a mother who doesn’t love her; who is actively cruel. This novel presents Ada’s emotional upheaval realistically, and with no easy explanations. As readers we ride the waves of fear and despair and uncertainty along with Ada. The War That Saved My Life presents so many questions for young (and old) readers, and would be a great book to read and discuss with a class.

I’m really impressed with Text for publishing books for young readers that are so different – books that don’t talk down to kids and teenagers, books that offer up ideas and characters that are complex. The kinds of books that kids can both enjoy and be inspired by. I’m excited to recommend these novels to young adults I know, and to incorporate them into my teaching. And – of course – I’m excited to read more books like these. I’m proud to be a grown adult who loves reading middle grade and YA fiction. A good book is a good book, and these are some of the best I’ve read in a long time.

Just a quick post in the midst of furiously finishing uni assignments to announce some exciting news …

My very first novel – The Peacock Detectives – has been shortlisted for The Text Prize

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will be published by Text Publishing!

The Peacock Detectives is a novel for middle-grade readers (roughly ages 8 to 12) about a young girl searching for two peacocks that disappear from the holiday flats next door. Ostensibly a mystery, The Peacock Detectives is really about family, grief and coping with mental illness.

I first started working on The Peacocks in 2012 while I was living in Asia. Huge thanks to the dedicated members of Seoul Writers Workshop and Phnom Penh Writers Workshop for their thoughtful and constructive feedback. Thanks also to all those family members, students and friends (and children of friends!) who read drafts and shared their thoughts.

And of course thank you to Text! I’m incredibly excited about the opportunity to work with this wonderful publisher.

Finally, congratulations to the other three shortlistees – Adam Cece, Sharon Kernot and Brendan Lawley. I’m looking forward to meeting you all in May and reading your work!

Okay, excited post over. Resuming assignments … now.

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peacock artwork by Emma Manning

When I was in high school I thought themes were mysterious secrets locked inside novels, short stories, poems. Discovering them was like solving a cryptic crossword clue – finding a word to fit the boxes but never being exactly sure of the connection between the answer and the question. For a while I relied on teachers or Google to reveal the themes of a novel to me. It has taken probably ten years to wrap my head around what I really mean when I talk about themes – and it has taken teaching ‘theme’ to finally allow me to articulate it.

So. Articulate away then, Carly. What’s a theme?

Theme

  • A theme is a big idea in a novel (or short story, film, poem, play etc).

  • It is a big idea that recurs throughout a novel. Not just once or twice.

  • It is a big idea in the sense that it is broad and abstract: something universal (experienced by everyone) and yet subjective (experienced differently by everyone).

  • It is a big idea in the sense that everyone would – if they had to draw the idea – create a slightly different picture.

  • Some examples of big ideas (i.e. themes) are: love, identity, death.

  • It is a big idea PLUS the author’s interpretation/opinion of that idea. For example: love PLUS/+ takes many different forms and changes over time.

  • A novel is itself a specific example of a theme. A novel is a picture of the big idea. One person’s (the author’s) drawing of what this idea is about.

  • Novels have themes (big, over-arching ideas) and characters, narrative, setting (small, specific examples of themes).

  • Themes are found by looking at these examples (characters, narrative etc) and thinking about what keeps coming up. What are the characters preoccupied with, for example? In Burial Rites, why are there so many mentions of ravens? What sort of theme (big idea) might this be an example of?

Another way of thinking about – and figuring out – theme is to look at plot structure. I like to think about plot as a mountain shape – the story begins at the bottom of the mountain, a problem starts the climb, rising action is the climb, the climax sits at the top, and falling action is the descent. However, when a story comes back down its mountain it doesn’t end up at exactly the same level as it did when it began. This is because, although things go back to normal for the protagonist, it is a new normal. Something has changed – permanently – because of the story, because of the journey she or he has taken.

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In order to decide on the major theme of a novel it is sometimes useful to think about the following equation:

what has changed for the protagonist

+

why

=

theme

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

I first read Burial Rites last year, based on a friend’s recommendation. It was very different to what I was expecting. I think, because Hannah Kent is an Australian author, I was imagining something set in the bush, the outback, the Aussie suburbs. Needless to say, 1820s Iceland was a surprise.

20170326_152622I liked Burial Rites after the first read. I thought the story was interesting, well-paced; I thought the writing was beautiful and crisp. I liked it, but I was not really invested in it. I felt like there was more to it, and that it warranted a second read. I wasn’t, however, planning to read it again. There are so many books on my shelf that haven’t had a first read. In a perfect world, I would love to read every book twice. There is something so different about a second read, but I just don’t have time.

Burial Rites is a Year 12 text, and I happen to be tutoring a few Year 12 students. So it was out of necessity, rather than choice, that I came to read Burial Rites a second time. And after the second read things really started to seep into me. So much so that by the end – knowing exactly how it would end – I was moved almost to tears.

The second read of a novel is where theme really starts to come into focus. Because you know the story you can concentrate on the details – on the description, the characters, the repeated moments, the structure of the narrative. You can highlight and scribble notes in the margins, and begin to see the symbolic shape of the novel rather than just its events.

One of the big ideas that recurs throughout Burial Rites – that starts to become clear during a second read – is identity. The very structure of the novel – told in third person from a number of different points of view – hints at this. So does the main character’s – Agnes – need to tell her story, to let people know who she is, to confirm her own identity.

Identity is a universal idea. Everyone has an identity, and everyone attempts to understand the identities of people around them. It is also a specific, subjective idea. Everyone thinks differently about how to define themselves and those around them. Do we understand identity by looking at physical appearance, by listening to what people say about themselves, or what others say about them?

Trying to understand what Hannah Kent thinks about the theme of identity (her opinion or the value she places on it) is a little trickier. To find out, we can look at how she presents the journeys of her main characters. How they are changed through the course of the story, and what this says about who they are.

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Let’s focus on Agnes. How is she different by the end of the novel to the beginning? Most obviously, she is alive at the beginning and dead at the end. Her physical state has changed. But what about her mental state?

Burial Rites is – in a very large sense – the story of a woman trying to come to terms with the fact that she is going to die. She is preparing for death, getting ready. At the beginning of the novel she is not ready to die. At the end – though she is still terrified of her execution – something has changed. She has made some peace, she has found people who support her, who don’t believe she deserves to die. She has gone from being alone in her death, to being with others.

Why? What was it that changed these circumstances for Agnes?

I would argue that it was the fact that she was able to tell her own story. To show people who she was through action (her hard work on the farm, her care for others) but also through her own words.

So – what has changed? Agnes is accepted, supported, has her identity confirmed by others.

+

Why? Because she was allowed to demonstrate her identity through words and actions.

=

Theme: True identity is discovered through being given the freedom to express ourselves through how we tell our own stories, and through what we do.

Of course, all this is open to interpretation. There is no fixed rule about how to find themes in texts – this post is an illustration of my own personal approach, of an approach that works for me. As long as you can support your own thematic opinions with evidence from the text, anything you say is valid.

Some people feel that by analysing novels we destroy them, draining all the pleasure out of a good story by picking away too closely at the details. For me, however, looking closely at a text (reading it again, highlighting, note-taking, discussing, thinking) adds another layer to my experience that is so much richer. I like analysing novels for the same reason I write about them here on this blog – because it gets me to think deeper, and in thinking deeper I inevitably find something that surprises, inspires or simply changes my ideas. This is a process that I find both enjoyable and important to the way I grow as a person, the way I interact with the world. Searching for meaning in a novel like Burial Rites adds another thread of meaning to my own life. It’s a search that enriches, engrosses, and lasts a lifetime.

Burial Rites is Hannah Kent’s first novel, and is based on the true story of Agnes Magnusdottir, the last person to be executed in Iceland. Kent’s latest novel – The Good People – was published in 2016.