Critical Acclaim Burial Rites is the successful début novel from Hannah Kent. It could be classified as historical fiction as it is based on a criminal from Icelandic history and it has been longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award and the Bailey’s Prize for Women’s Fiction
“They said I must die. They said that I stole the breath from men, and now they must steal mine. I imagine, then, that we are all candle flames, greasy-bright, fluttering in the darkness and the howl of the wind, and in the stillness of the room I hear footsteps, awful coming footsteps, coming to blow me out and send my life up away from me in a grey wreath of smoke. I will vanish into the air and the night. They will blow us all out, one by one, until it is only their own light by which they see themselves. Where will I be then?”
It is 1829 in the frozen depths of Northern Iceland, and Agnes Magnúsdóttir is being taken to stay with a family in Kornsá – but this is not a social visit. She has been found guilty of the Illugastadir murders and is due to be executed. She will be placed into the custody of District Officer Jón Jónsson and his family – staying in their home – until this is arranged. Agnes has been mistreated in prison and her dress is soaked in her excrement, she has not eaten for days and her hair is greasy and matted. She is subject to ridicule from the prison guards and, despite her crimes, as the reader you pity her within the first few pages.
When she arrives with Jón and his family, his wife Margarét shows her humanity by bathing and cleaning Agnes, pitying her scars and obvious signs of neglect. But she does not warm to her. It is not until the Revered Thorvardur Jónsson (Tóti) comes to assist Agnes by listening to her story and preparing her for death that we learn where she has come from and about the murder. She slowly opens up, telling her story bit by bit in her meetings with him, sitting in the badstofa (the central living/sleeping room in their hut) where the family also sit and pretend to not be listening.
The title Burial Rites comes from the idea of your Christian funeral rites and the right to be buried on consecrated ground; which, as a murderer, Agnes has forfeited. The opening letters to the book discuss this. The three murders do not have their burial rites, but the victims were granted them as they were ‘not yet thought of as belonging to those outside the Christian way’. Despite the fact that one victim was well known to be a womaniser, getting close to married women and suspected of witchcraft (although nothing ever comes of this), and the second victim being a known thief. Despite their crimes and (lack of) standing in society they were allowed these rites, however, Agnes is denied them. As her story is told it is up to you to decide if this is right, or even if it matters. In 19th Century Iceland this would be important and does make you wonder why Tóti is trying to prepare her soul for death if she is not worthy of a proper Christian funeral; is it ever too late to find your way back?
Burial Rites is gripping. Your first thought is ‘did she do it?’ quickly followed by ‘will she be executed?’ Agnes’ story is a fascinating one. She is a strong woman from a rough background, she shows discipline and an ability to hold her composure and rise above ridicule and contempt. She had a troubled childhood and it does start to read like an excuse for what she has been accused of; but the human lust for details and a bloody story, means this book is hard to put down.
Kent shows her ability to write as she drip-feeds you the information. All you want is the gory details from the murder – you’ll have to wait until the end I’m afraid – but every second of the journey back through Agnes’ life and the insight into how hard and taxing life was in Iceland is interesting and makes the wait bearable. You will even find yourself sympathising with Agnes and willing for something to happen that will prevent her execution – if you are anything like me you have already Googled her – and hope that Kent will save her and she will ride off in to the sunset for her happily ever after.
The level of research that has gone into this novel is immense. Every detail, name and custom seems to have been meticulously researched and thought out, from the Icelandic naming system, to their preparations for Winter. The description of the dwellings, land and weather make you forget that you are living in the 21st Century with central heating, winter coats and mattresses. You become wholly submerged in this world and the people living in it.
The style of the novel is interesting. It begins with letters which set the scene and provide the reader with the foundations of knowledge that an outsider would have. Agnes speaks through the first person but everybody else has to deal with a third person narrative – there are a few sub-plots to juice up the story but nothing is as developed as Agnes. She is such a deep and complicated character that you close the book and feel as though there was more she could have shared, more unanswered questions, plucking a person out of history who has not been well documented and bringing them to life shows a definite talent. However, the lack of development elsewhere is the tell of a first novel but a promise of things to come.
The only downside to the book is the confusing names, both human and place. It can be hard to keep track of who is related to who as they are all named in the traditional Icelandic patronymic naming system. A person’s last name comes from their father’s first name followed by the suffix -són (male) or -dóttir (female). So, a brother and sister could be Jónsson and Jónsdóttir respectively and are both the children of Jón. You would find, therefore, that a son could have a different surname to his father and the same surname as a total stranger, unlike with our English family names, you cannot assume anything. Although this is confusing, it only adds to the believability of the narrative and so cannot be held against the book, and as a piece of historical fiction all details like this have to be included. It can also be hard to keep track of which place is which. Luckily there is a helpful map in the front of the book, with a key to which person belongs to which place.
It is obvious throughout that this book is a first novel. There is experimentation with writing styles and a flirtation with a romantic storyline, but I believe that Hannah Kent is one to watch and I will definitely be first in line when she publishes her next book. (Click on the picture below to be taken straight to amazon.co.uk)
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