Foreboding: Burial Rites

It’s pretty exciting when a book comes along that captures everyone’s imagination. Last month, that book was Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites from Picador.

Helped in no small part by the ABC’s fascinating Australian Story featuring this talented new author, often when I mentioned that I was reading this book, the response was a rapid-fire ‘Me too!’.

burial ritesIn northern Iceland, 1829, Agnes Magnusdottir is condemned to death for her part in the brutal murder of two men.

Agnes is sent to wait out the time leading to her execution on the farm of District Officer Jon Jonsson, his wife and their two daughters. Horrified to have a convicted murderess in their midst, the family avoids speaking with Agnes. Only Toti, the young assistant reverend appointed as Agnes’s spiritual guardian, is compelled to try to understand her, as he attempts to salvage her soul. As the summer months fall away to winter and the hardships of rural life force the household to work side by side, Agnes’s ill-fated tale of longing and betrayal begins to emerge. And as the days to her execution draw closer, the question burns: did she or didn’t she?

Based on a true story, Burial Rites is a deeply moving novel about personal freedom: who we are seen to be versus who we believe ourselves to be, and the ways in which we will risk everything for love. In beautiful, cut-glass prose, Hannah Kent portrays Iceland’s formidable landscape, where every day is a battle for survival, and asks, how can one woman hope to endure when her life depends upon the stories told by others?

It’s proving popular with book groups too, which give you some indication of how people are reading the book – they can’t wait to talk about it. I put this down to, for me, the intense sense of isolation that comes from the book, one that made me crave conversation with the next person I meet.

The haunting, desolate Icelandic setting created a really unique feeling as I read this ‘speculative biography’..

“I should like to hear you describe it,” Toti prompted.

“It’s not much more than the base of the mountain, and the shore of the sea. It’s a long line of rocky ground, with one or two smooth fields where winter fodder is grown, and all the rest is wild grass, growing around the stones. The shore is of pebbles, and huge tangles of seaweed float in the bay and look like the hair of the drowned. Driftwood appears overnight like magic, and eider ducks nest upon nearby banks of rocks near seal colonies. On  clear day it’s beautiful, and on others it’s as miserable as grave-digging in the rain.”

Hannah Kent, in her debut novel, has worked her craft expertly. She’s handled the difficulties of language, words of a different time and place, deftly. In a less disciplined hand the accents and mouthy surnames might have been difficult to pick through. Not so here though, rather, they create an authenticity without disrupting the flow of the narrative.

Hannah has clearly (and by all reports) completed incredibly thorough research in order to tell Agnes’ story. I’d venture to say that she’d know just about as much as any other person about the life and eventual fate of the last woman executed in Iceland. As such, she paints a sympathetic and quite heartbreaking picture of this woman condemned…

They have strapped me to the saddle like a corpse being taken to the burial ground. In their eyes I am already a dead woman, destined for the grave. My arms are tethered in front of me. As we ride this awful parade, the irons pinch my flesh until it bloodies in front of my eyes. I have come to expect harm now. Some of the watchmen at Stora-Borg compassed my body with small violences, chronicled their hatred towards me, a mark here, bruises, blossoming like star clusters under the skin, black and yellow smoke trapped under the membrane. I suppose some of them had known Natan.

The unforgivingly puritanical society, one operating on a harsh class system which is heavily reliant on a servant-class has the reader doubting the fairness, if not the accuracy of Agnes’ guilty verdict. This is a difficult time and place, where women are horribly mistreated as a matter of course. Agnes’ has clearly been a victim of repeated abuse, which of course one is tempted to use to excuse her her crimes. But, still there are things about her, mostly stories from others,that could maybe suggest that she is in fact the cold-blooded killer that people say she is.

The characters of the young Reverend Toti, sent to save Agnes’ soul and Margaret, the lady of the house where Agnes is billeted until her execution are well-drawn, compassionate and believable characters. They add an extra dimension to the story, and to Agnes herself.

I really enjoyed this book and found its meandering pace balanced nicely with a sense of foreboding and borrowed time, a really interesting reading experience.

I’m pretty sure that we’ll see this book pop up a lot over the next 12 months, and I’d recommend that you take a look. It’s great to see such impressive literature coming from a young Australian author.

You can find out more about Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites here…