Sometimes, when I read a novel, I forget that I'm a writer. Though, these days it happens less often. While immersed in the story I more often find myself thinking nice metaphor… Or that's a passive sentence. Or when going down a seemingly predictable path, how's the author going to turn this? Mostly these thoughts are like flies buzzing around in the background, a now familiar part of my reading experience. But sometimes, a book turns me fizz-green with envy. I struggle to concentrate because the precision of its prose rarely falters. In a frenzy of despair, I consider hurling my MacBook off a cliff and never writing again.
Hannah Kent's Burial Rites is one of those books.
Winner of Writing Australia's unpublished novel award, twenty eight year old PhD student, Hannah Kent's debut novel secured lucrative international publishing deals and has gone on to attract wide literary acclaim <insert wild eyes, foaming mouth and gnashing teeth> In fact, considering the strength of my reaction (no, I'm not prone to exaggeration) you may be wondering why I'm writing this blog? And that is a good question.
You may consider it a form of therapy.
Burial Rites is based on the story of Agnes Magnúsdottir an Icelandic woman who was sentenced to death for her part in the brutal murder of two men. In the year 1829, between her sentencing and execution, Agnes was held in custody at Kornsá a farming district in the North of Iceland. Historical documents are used extensively throughout this novel, infusing the narrative with an air of authority. They also relieve the author of a need to shoe-horn information into the plot. Apart from these primary sources, which Kent translated from Icelandic, the story is told from multiple points-of-view, the most haunting being the first person voice of Agnes herself.
In terms of the historical sentencing and execution this novel can offer no surprises. Agnes Magnúsdottir was tried, sentenced and executed on January 12th, 1830. However, we are given to believe that Magnúsdottir never actually confessed to these murders. Kent therefore takes the historical record along with the considerable folk imagination surrounding the case and furnishes it with mood, character and motive. The question did she actually do it? becomes the driving force of the novel.
In addition to primary sources, Kent uses many Icelandic words and phrases throughout the novel. Personally, I like this in a book. It gives a sense of time and place. But I hadn't got far into Burial Rites before I started thinking, hang on a sec, this author actually speaks Icelandic. Secretly,
if ever when my first novel is published, I hope someone thinks, gee, this author speaks some Welsh (sadly, they'll more likely think, gee, she's stuffed up her mutations). Anyway (cough), on noticing this evident bilingualism, I turned to the author biography at the front of the book. I learned that Hannah Kent spent a year in Iceland as an exchange student.
Now, if you know anything about my family, you will know that our daughter went to Switzerland on a year long AFS exchange during her teens. In return, we had the privelege of hosting three European girls. Exchange is a special relationship – the first time each girl called me mum a magical moment. For that one word changed the entire relationship. Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not suggesting any of my girls were criminals. However the process of having a stranger enter your home and the gentle, wondrous process of forging a mother, daughter relationship is unique. Call me fanciful, but I suggest this experience underpinned Kent's consciousness as she wove the unlikely bonds between Agnes and her custodial family.
One of our host daughters, Winnie, came from the Faroe Islands. These tiny islands in the North Sea are now affiliated with Denmark. Faroe Islanders speak Faroese which Winnie informed us is not unlike a form of Icelandic. The Faroe Islands do not suffer the extreme temperatures of Iceland. However, many of Kent's descriptions were reminiscent of Winne's life. For, in the Faroes, many still live on agricultural holdings. They hunt whale and eat it's meat. They keep livestock, dry fish and make sheep's blood pancakes. They also experience long dark winters and a summer without nights. No doubt, Kent did a great deal of research to produce the authentic details of farming life and slaughtering practices in nineteenth century Iceland. But, if her exchange program did it's job, she'd also have been exposed to these traditions. And it shows. Her descriptions and detail speak of a conscious cultural immersion.
One of my favourite aspects of this novel is it's representations of religion. For according to the historical record, Agnes Magnúsdottir chose Tóti, a young, inexperienced assistant clergyman as her spiritual guardian. Initially, the fictional Tóti was dwarfed by the horror and magnitude of this request, his official role being to preach, pray and basically bludgeon Agnes Magnúsdottir into a state of repentance. In fact, Tóti does the opposite. And the effect is a poignant depiction of gospel love in all it's clumsiness, mixed motives and short comings.
Finally, a word of warning. In a recent tea room discussion at the library (yes, we do talk about books in our break) Burial Rites came up for discussion. One staff member who was listening to the talking book version of the novel said: It's beautiful, the writing is beautiful but, God, it's bleak. And she was right. This is not a light, feel good summer holiday read. Kent's depiction of Agnes Magnúsdottir's final days is chilling, both in it's terror and its beauty. If you need a taster check out the book trailer. And remember before you open the book cover Kent called Burial Rites her 'dark love letter to Iceland.'