Burial Rites by Hannah Kent is one of those books that your whole Twitter feed is reading and, since you all trust them so much regarding books, you decide to take a look. Once I did, I knew it was a book that I needed to read, probably autumn’s best and most anticipated novel, so I contacted Sandra Taylor from Macmillan and the kindly sent me a review copy. A big thanks, as usual, to everyone who made it possible for me to have the book.
A brilliant literary debut, inspired by a true story: the final days of a young woman accused of murder in Iceland in 1829.
Set against Iceland’s stark landscape, Hannah Kent brings to vivid life the story of Agnes, who, charged with the brutal murder of her former master, is sent to an isolated farm to await execution.Horrified at the prospect of housing a convicted murderer, the family at first avoids Agnes. Only Tóti, a priest Agnes has mysteriously chosen to be her spiritual guardian, seeks to understand her. But as Agnes’s death looms, the farmer’s wife and their daughters learn there is another side to the sensational story they’ve heard.Riveting and rich with lyricism, BURIAL RITES evokes a dramatic existence in a distant time and place, and asks the question, how can one woman hope to endure when her life depends upon the stories told by others?
If you follow this blog, you surely know Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood is one of my favourite novels ever. That book is a masterpiece in every sense of the word, from characters to historical accuracy, I think it is a landmark in feminist, Canadian and postmodern literature. So, when I first read about Burial Rites, I knew I would love it, because it takes Atwood’s premise and moves it to Iceland. Then, the book arrives and its beautiful dark-sprayed pages’ edges made me gasp in admiration. It really pays off when someone takes care of an edition and there was no doubt the team at Macmillan did with Kent’s novel, I think it is another important way to show both the author and readers how much they care for what is inside.
Already in love with the book, I started reading and the first thing that came to my mind was how much I missed Icelandic crime novels. I read a few some years ago and the dark, cold setting was just perfect for the genre. So, encountering similar – and similarly complex – names made me feel a little bit at home. The book is divided into chapters and at least three points of view, all of them enriched with historical accounts and documents from the 19th century. This combination makes reading easier and friendlier: there were moments when I was too tired to keep reading or the train was arriving to my station, so most of the times I could finish one of those segments.
But what deserves my whole attention is the main character: Agnes Magnúsdottir. When I first heard of the book, I knew it was based on a true story, so I decided to stay away from any other historical facts and did not do any research. I wanted to get to know Agnes and her story as Hannah Kent wanted to present them to me. Hannah discovered Agnes had been the last woman to be executed in Iceland when she was an exchange student – she is Australian – in Iceland and she immediately fell in love with it. She explains why in this article for the Guardian:
“I first heard the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir when I was an exchange student in the north of Iceland. It was 2002, I was 17 years old, and I had left Adelaide for Sauðárkrókur an isolated fishing village, where I would live for 12 months. […] I can only speculate that the strange, isolated place of Agnes’s death made me think of my own feelings of loneliness; that I thought of Agnes as a fellow outsider in a remote Icelandic community, and I identified with her in some small way.”
So, I started reading and learned about a young, single woman trying to survive in 1830’s Iceland and all the prejudices that she had to face due to her gender, social class and most importantly, her lack of a male reference for society to define her. Agnes could very well be a collection of features that have historically condemned women to death. Her father is unknown, her mother, as a consequence, was ostracized from society; she grew up a pauper and started working as soon as she could. She was raped and abused, she almost died out of starvation and cold a few times and despite all, she managed to survive until she sees herself caught in a crime. Despite being two more people accused of the crime, Agnes is the one who suffers the most, again due to her condition. In fact, the other female accused is freed because she is young, pretty and “a little simple-minded.” In contrast, Agnes is wicked, manipulative and jealous. So she must be condemned. Here are some quotes, for the book is beautifully written, on this creation of a wicked, bewitched female identities and how Agnes is robbed of everything, even her own narratives:
“Everything I said was taken from me and altered until the story wasn’t my own.”
“They see I’ve got a head on my shoulders, and believe a thinking woman cannot be trusted.”
“They will see the whore, the madwoman, the murderess, the female dripping blood into the grass and laughing with her mouth choked with dirt. 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.”
Burial Rites is a masterpiece and one of autumn’s best novels. I highly recommend it to everyone, but especially to those interested in historically accurate descriptions of women’s role and place in society. I do not think I have heard of many non-crime novels set in Iceland, so this is a great opportunity to become familiar with Iceland culture. However, I gave the novel 4 stars because it reminded me too much of Alias Grace and I do not mean this in a bad way. The historical proximity of both women might very well have led to very similar stories, but I am guessing Hannah Kent took Atwood’s work as a referent, something I applaud, for her celebrated debut novel. Burial Rites is a masterpiece on its own by a young, upcoming and promising young author of whom I am already a fan. And finally, a quote that resonated with me (why is it that I always feel identified with disruptive female characters?):
“I preferred to read than talk with the others.”
Hannah Kent is actually touring the USA to promote the book. You can follow her on Twitter.