Last time I looked, Burial Rites was sitting at number 8 on the independent best-seller list in Oz, pipped only by heavy hitters such as The Silkworm, The Goldfinch and that searingly honest YA novel, The Fault in Our Stars (a novel that more sophisticated than I expected.) Now, there are a number of reasons why Burial Rites has occupied the top 10 for so long. For one thing, it is easy to read, strikingly well-written and intellectually engaging. But the true genius of this novel lies in the simplicity of its central story – that of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last woman to be executed in Iceland. As the character of Agnes confirms on page one:
‘They said I must die. They said I stole the breath from men, and now they must steal mine.’
A taste of things to come, no doubt.
During 1828 on a farm in northern Iceland, two men are viciously murdered, their bodies discovered amid the burnt-out remains of the elder victim’s farmhouse. Three people are charged with the murders and sentenced to death; this includes Agnes Magnúsdóttir, a young house maid.
In the months before her execution date, Agnes is placed in the custody of the District Officer of the region, on his family farm in the north of the country – a bleak and monochrome land. She is to work on the farm, as well as receive spiritual guidance from Assistant Reverend Thorvardur Jónsson (Tóti). Despite the precautions taken (Agnes is bound when she arrives, and is under supervision), the family (including two sisters) are repulsed and frightened at the reality of sharing close living area, or badstofa, with convicted murderess.
Yet during Tóti’s regular visits with Agnes, more of her sad life is revealed. As with any conflict or act of violence, there is always so much more than what meets the eye – and this is certainly the case with the Iceland murders. The bottom line is that context and history are so important in shaping present actions and events.
Comments and Analysis
One of the important elements of this story is the use of multiple points of view. An omnipotent narrator interchanges with Agnes’ first person view, allowing the reader to place Agnes in the context of her narrow, rule-bound society. This technique also allows Kent to reveal an Iceland with little compassion for those who step outside the rules, and those sentenced, by virtue of their birth, to a life of hardship.
The introduction and continuation of the first person narrative allows of deep personal insights, memories and, of critical importance to the novel, the revelation of the truth (as Agnes sees it anyway) of what actually happened on the night of the murder.
Kent also does a great job of tapping into our appetite for the less savoury aspects of life: murder, passion and revenge in an icy landscape. But Kent should not be seen as a writer who is cynically fishing for readers of a certain genre. Rather, Kent’s interested in Iceland and its culture is so genuine it is almost palpable.
Burial Rites is carefully structured, aligning historical documents with well-considered, sharp prose. With her carefully allusions to a society that sits uncomfortably with modernity, Kent’s Iceland is a land of ‘otherness’, just as Agnes, a woman who strayed outside of society’s patriarchal conventions, is ‘othered’.
Of course, as with all works of fiction, there are always a few quirks and minor irritation. Kent’s prose comes across as stiff and formal in the early stages, like she is trying just a bit to hard. It is also incredibly dark passages, filled with vivid descriptions of a harsh, cold landscape populated with judgmental, evil and selfish people. This can get wearing. But there is certainly a balance. Kent uses Agnes’ relationship with Toti, and her reflections about her life, to show there is hope in the most bleak situations, and the glimmers of compassion the District Officer’s family show to Agnes also serve to provide relief from the sheer terror of her situation.
A beautiful and compelling novel built on a strong foundation of robust historical research.
For more insights into Burial Rites, I highly recommend Chris Sullivan’s excellent review here. Some interesting insights into the novel, includes parallels with Atwood’s Alias Grace.
ISBN: 9781742612829. Published in 2013 by Picador Australia.
STOP PRESS: Hannah Kent in Melbourne!
Oh and Ms Kent is visiting the Melbourne Writers’ Festival (huzzah!) and is also speaking at the Wheeler Centre this weekend. But of course, I have just found out both sessions are BOOKED OUT! Anyway….maybe there is a waiting list…maybe!
Until next time, good night all!