Shortlist 2014: Burial Rites

For the next six weeks, the ELLE Book Club will showcase extracts from each novel shortlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2014. How many have you read?

This week: by Hannah Kent (Picador)

THEY HAVE TAKEN ME FROM the room and put me in irons again. This time they sent an officer of the court, a young man with pocked skin and a nervous smile. He’s a servant from Hvammur, I recognised his face. When his lips broke apart I could see that his teeth were rotting in his mouth. His breath was awful, but no worse than my own; I know I am rank. I am scabbed with dirt and the accumulated weeping of my body: blood, sweat, oil. I cannot think of when I last washed. My hair feels like a greased rope; I have tried to keep it plaited, but they have not allowed me ribbons, and I imagine that to the officer I looked like a monstrous creature. Perhaps that was why he smiled.

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He took me from that awful room, and other men joined us as he led me through the unlit corridor. They were silent, but I felt them behind me; I felt their stares as though they were cold handgrips upon my neck. Then, after months in a room filled only with my own fetid breath and the stench from the chamber pot, I was taken through the corridors of Stóra-Borg into the muddy yard. And it was raining.

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How can I say what it was like to breathe again? I felt newborn. I staggered in the light of the world and took deep gulps of fresh sea air. It was late in the day: the wet mouth of the afternoon was full on my face. My soul blossomed in that brief moment as they led me out of doors. I fell, my skirts in the mud, and I turned my face upwards as if in prayer. I could have wept from the relief of light.

A man reached down and pulled me from the ground as one wrests a thistle that takes root in a place it does not belong. It was then that I noticed the crowd that had gathered. At first I did not know why these people stood about, men and women alike, each still and staring at me in silence. Then I understood that it was not me they stared at. I understood that these people did not see me. I was two dead men. I was a burning farm. I was a knife. I was blood.

Win the 20 longlisted books from the 2014 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction

Join the ELLE Book Club: This month's read is AM Homes' May we Be Forgiven

Have you read Burial Rites? Tweets us with your reviews at @ELLEUK #ELLEBookClub