First published in May 2014.
Australian author Hannah Kent’s debut novel has been met with much critical acclaim. She has been shortlisted for both the Guardian First Book Award and the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction (previously called The Orange Prize) for Burial Rites. The novel has been heralded as ‘remarkable’ by The Sunday Times, ‘wonderfully strange and haunting’ by The Times, ‘outstanding’ by Madeline Miller (author of The Song of Achilles, which won the Orange Prize in 2012) and ‘beautiful and compelling… the announcement of a writer to watch’ by The Guardian. The novel is based upon a true story, which Kent became fascinated with during a school exchange to Iceland whilst she was a teenager. She writes in her afterword that Burial Rites is ‘not entirely historically substantiated’, but it certainly does paint a fascinating portrait of the last woman to be executed in Iceland.
Burial Rites takes place in northern Iceland in 1829, where a woman named Agnes Magnusdottir is condemned to death for murdering her lover. Petur Jonsson and Natan Ketilsson – the latter the lover of Agnes – were found ‘murdered and burned’ in March 1828, on a rural farm. Three were arrested for their murders – Fridrik Sigurdsson, the son of a farmer, and two workmaids, Sigridur Gudmundsdottir and Agnes. These infamous killings became known as the Illugastadir murders and, according to a letter written from the District Commissioner in the novel, ‘have in their heinousness emblematised the corruption and ungodliness of this county’. Instead of being taken to Denmark to face their punishment, as was the norm at the time, it is decided that the three are to be executed in the north of Iceland, purely for ‘economical’ purposes.
The beginning of the novel, which is told using Agnes’ voice, is compelling: ‘They said I must die. They said that I stole the breath from men, and now they must steal mine’. Agnes has been placed with a family upon the Kornsa farm, in the government’s hopes that they ‘would inspire repentance by good example, and who would benefit from the work these prisoners do as they await their judgment’. Jon, who owns the farmstead, and who is the father of two girls in their early twenties named Steina and Lauga, is part of the local authority, and believes that being entrusted with Agnes’ care is his ‘responsibility’. Agnes requests the company of a priest named Assistant Reverend Thorvardur, who soon takes it upon himself to ‘save her’.
Agnes is cruelly treated in prison, and her human dignities are stripped away; she is beaten, half-starved and unable to wash herself. When Agnes is able to leave the cell in which she has been cooped up for an awfully long time, Kent’s descriptions build a multi-layered picture of her re-emergence into the world: ‘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… My soul blossomed in that brief moment as they led me out of doors’. Kent’s portrayal of her protagonist builds sympathy for her almost from the first moment in which we meet her. It feels as though the author has slipped right beneath Agnes’ skin, and the way in which we see scenes from her perspective renders the novel both rich and emotional in consequence.
A mixture of different literary techniques has been used throughout Burial Rites, from the first and third person perspectives which run concurrently with one another, to the use of letters to set the scene and introduce new characters. From the very beginning, Kent sets the scene wonderfully by using such historical elements as traditional foodstuffs – skyr and cream, for example – and the use of such things as dried sheep bladders as windowpanes in the houses of peasants in her prose. Several Icelandic words have been placed into the text, which further grounds it. Kent’s writing is often beautiful – she tells her readers that Agnes was raised ‘on a porridge of moss and poverty’, for example. Burial Rites is a rich and multi-layered novel, which tells the tale of a fascinating woman.