Review: Burial Rites, Hannah Kent

 Scandinavian crime fiction has been rather popular over the past few years.  Understatement.  However, despite taking Iceland as its setting, Burial Rites takes things from a rather original angle.  Not only is this novel written by an Australian who spent a year in Iceland as part of an exchange program, but rather than simply featuring a woman in an amazing jumper tackling a crime scene, we have instead a piece of startling and incredibly evocative historical fiction about the last woman to be executed in Iceland back in 1829.

To add to Hannah Kent’s achievements, this is her first novel.  As she admits herself, she set herself no easy task but Burial Rites is a remarkable book and one the most haunting reads that I have come across in a long time.  A kind of female Dead Man Walking, the novel attempts to shed light on the life of Agnes Magnusdottir, a thirty-four year-old maidservant who was charged with the murder of her employer and his friend, along with two accomplices.  As Kent explains in the afterword, this was a true crime that has entered the folklore of Iceland much as Ned Kelly entered Australia’s national heritage.

Kent has clearly done her research, her narrative is interspersed with epigraphs in the form of documents relating to the trial as the government officials negotiate the details of Agnes’ execution.  The most bewildering fact of the case to the modern eye is that after sentencing, Agnes was given over into the custody of the family who owned one of the farms she had grown up at.  Burial Rites charts the winter that Agnes spent in their company while she waited for death, her own personal Green Mile as she worked with them and lived among them, and all the while the story of what happened that dark night at Illugastadir gradually unfurls.  The rhythm and routine of farm life continues but by Agnes’ very presence, life for the family will never be the same again.
Capital punishment is a subject that fascinates; death itself is unknowable and the idea of it at an appointed hour is disturbing.  From the opening lines, we hear Agnes’ struggle to understand her fate.  They said I must die.  They said that I stole breath from men , and now they must steal mine.  It is an arresting beginning and sets the tone for our walk with Agnes.  The idea of the murderess is another concept that enthralls our culture, the image of the black widow spider who devours her mate, the femme fatale who drives men to dark deeds.  Even in the modern day it is seen as more unnatural for a woman to commit a violent act than for a man.  Agnes is too old, too beautiful and too clever for anybody to make excuses for her.  From the very outset, the reader knows that she is doomed.
The narrative switches between the letters and announcements to the omniscient third person describing events on the farm but mostly we hear from Agnes herself.  Her voice was by far the most compelling and the novel only faulters when it strays too far away from her.  She has shrunk far into herself and indeed as the novel begins it is almost as though she has died already within.  Her voice is crisp, her words are few and Kent uses her pauses perfectly as we come to know this embittered and heartsore woman who has been cast out and condemned by the world.
Final resting place of Agnes and her accomplice.
It is the young Assistant Reverend ‘Toti’ who first begins to reach out to her, the priest Agnes has requested to help her prepare her soul for death.  Still, this was no sanctimonious tale of repentance and Agnes’ crime is not clear cut.  Her life has been one of harsh poverty, never knowing true affection and short on happiness.  Agnes is a rootless tree, a woman always moving onwards, searching for a place to be.  Her relationship with Toti never quite seems complete, more intriguing is the way that the other women in the house slowly begin to respond to her.  Margret is the lady of the house, with her two daughters Steina and Lauga, then the other servants.  Agnes is performing the role of maid, one that she knows well but this time it is different.  Any day may bring the date of her death.
Hannah Kent (c) The Guardian
It is incredible to imagine having a convicted murderer in one’s home but as the winter comes on, the family begin to rest easier with their unusual house guest.  They listen at the other side of the room as she begins falteringly to tell her story to the priest.  There is a difference between the story that Agnes tells the reader and that which is spoken out loud, yet despite the discrepancy, I did not feel that this was simply another novel about the fallibility of memory.  Agnes had arrived on the farm, trussed to a horse and with her dark legend billowing behind her.  While everyone had been quick to judge her, the eldest of the three criminals and the one who had killed her lover, Kent seems more to be trying to lend a voice to the woman behind all this mythology.  Who was Agnes Magnusdottir?  Was she a hard-faced murderess bent on revenge?  Or was she an ill-used serving-woman who was dragged into an argument out of control?  I felt that Burial Rites showed us that the sum of a life cannot be weighed up by one act.  Life is rarely that simple.
The most vivid element of this novel is the description, Hannah Kent clearly knows Iceland well and she draws a painful and difficult world of cold, a world where paranoias and passions can take over and blacken the lives of those they overshadow.  Agnes’ spiritual loneliness is moving and neither over nor under-played.  At this remove, the real Agnes is a blank figure but I was grateful to Hannah Kent for spinning her story to such effect.  This novel therefore is to be highly recommended, reminding us that life and people are both complex, that there is always more than one perspective and that all people who walk this earth are worth remembering, no matter what their misdeeds.
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Burial Rites by Hannah Kent
Published by Pan Macmillan on August 29th 2013
Genres: Fiction, General
Pages: 256
ISBN: 9781447233183

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3 thoughts on “Review: Burial Rites, Hannah Kent

  1. You know, I had no idea that Scandanavian crime thrillers were a thing! Guess that shows how much I'm paying attention…I will definitely be picking this up. I was just thinking that I need a thriller. I'm getting a bit tired of the cozy vintage British genre (something I've been reading a lot of recently).

  2. Hi, I wouldn't call Burial Rites a thriller … maybe I'd better edit that word out. I think it was Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow that really seemed to kick the fashion off and that was in the 1990s but Burial Rites is very different, it's a very chilly look at a woman preparing for death. It's very beautiful but heart-breaking too!

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