Hannah Kent, Burial rites (Review)

Hannah Kent, Burial Rites bookcover

Courtesy: Picador

“We’ll remember you” says Margrét to Agnes on the day of her execution. We sure will, if Hannah Kent’s debut novel Burial rites has anything to say about it. Kent’s book is the second novel set in Iceland I’ve read, the first being Icelandic writer Halldor Laxness’s unforgettable Independent people. Although Laxness’s novel is set a century after Burial rites, it prepared me for Kent’s novel – for the difficult landscape, the hard lives, and the unforgiving natures that such an environment can engender. Yes, that’s a generalisation I know. You can find unforgiving natures anywhere, but oh, they work so well in harsh environments. Just think, for example, of My Antonia (my review).

But now, what to say about a book that hit the book stands running? I wanted to read it last year, but I also wanted to read it with my reading group, which is why I have only now read it. Reading a book so late can make it difficult to add anything meaningful to the conversation. Fortunately though, while I couldn’t avoid the early buzz, I haven’t read the myriad reviews out there, enabling me to come to it reasonably freshly. So, here goes …

Remember your place, Agnes

It’s a compelling read. Icelanders may know the basic story, but we don’t. It concerns Agnes Magnúsdóttir – great sounding name, eh? – who, in 1830, was the last person to be executed in Iceland. She and two others, Fridrik Sigurdsson and Sigrídur Gudmundsdóttir, were convicted of murdering Natan Ketilsson, a complicated and probably cruel man, and his friend Pétur. Fridrik was also executed, while Sigrídur’s sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. Apparently, executions were normally carried out in Denmark but District Commissioner Björn Blöndal wanted to make an example of Agnes. As it would take some time to organise the executions and as Iceland had no real prison facilities, Agnes and Fridrik, were, literally, farmed out to live with public officials who were also farmers. Most of the novel takes place on the farm, Kornsà, to which Agnes was sent. The main characters, there, are the farmer’s dying wife Margrèt, her two daughters Steina and Lauga, and her husband Jón. Making regular visits is Assistant Reverend Tóti, chosen by Agnes to be her religious adviser. As the novel progresses, we also meet the victim and Agnes’s co-murderers.

Kent creates a believable world in which the people at Kornsà are initially resentful and fearful, but gradually, more gradual for some than others, come to recognise Agnes’ humanity and to believe that her sentence “isn’t right”. Similarly, the anxious but conscientious Tóti grows through his relationship as Agnes’ mentor. We learn about Agnes’ childhood, in which she is early deserted by her mother and then loses a loving foster-mother through death in childbirth. And we learn about her struggles to support herself as a woman. She thought she’d found her place with Natan, who seemed to offer her love while also offering her a job, but he soon reminds her of “her place”! Kent’s Agnes lives most of her life alone, lonely, and unsupported, which was probably not uncommon for women of her class at that time. This is, I’m sure, one of the themes Kent wants to explore in her novel.

You could argue that, overall, Kent’s women are fleshed out more than her men, but this is Agnes’ story and we know, I think, what we need to know about the men. There is a feminist reading to the book, but it is also more broadly sociological, to do with poverty and disempowerment. That women are more likely than men to find themselves in these positions is part of the problem.

This is what I told the reverend

Kent doesn’t use a simple, direct narrative to tell her story. (What novelist does in this post-postmodern world of ours!) For a start, she opens each chapter with one or more translated archival documents. This regular interruption of the main narrative could irritate readers by breaking emotional engagement with the story, but I found it enhanced the novel, particularly considering Kent’s intentions. One of these intentions, as she explained in an interview at last year’s World Book Expo, relates to the fact that she sees the novel as “speculative biography” not “historical fiction”. She describes, in this and other interviews, her methodology which was to use facts wherever they were available. Where the facts weren’t available, she says, she did broader contextual research about Iceland to imagine what was most likely to have occurred. She felt “free to invent” only in the outright gaps. She describes this approach as “research-driven creative-practice”. It’s logical, given all this, that she would use archival documents to support her “story”.

The other main narrative technique Kent uses is to switch voices from first person for Agnes, to third person for everyone else. This also makes sense given that Kent’s prime motivation was to give Agnes a voice, to “find her ambiguity, her humanity” and lift her out of the prevailing, more caricatured image. Again, I think it works, mostly. Agnes’ voice is distinctive, strong, and wavers, as you would expect, from confidence and hope to anxiety and fear. However, there were times when the switch back to third person seemed unnecessary. Mostly the third person sections focus on other characters, even when they are interacting with Agnes, but on a couple of occasions the shift occurs in the middle of Agnes’ story. One minute she is telling her story – “This is what I told the reverend” – and next minute the reverend asks “What happened then” and her story continues in the third person with her words in quotation marks. This was a little disconcerting, though it didn’t spoil the story significantly.

A magic stone

While the main point of the novel is Agnes’ story, Kent, in the process, paints a rich picture of Icelandic society, of the farmers, healers, neighbours, poets, gossips, maids and so on. Religion is clearly important, but for some characters, omens and superstition are equally if not more powerful. Natan is depicted as highly susceptible to bad omens, and for Agnes the ever-present ravens – “their black feathers poisonous against the snow” – reflect her sense of aloneness, and bode ill. By contrast, stones suggest good luck:

The stone Mamma gave me before she left. It will bring you good luck, Agnes. It is a magic stone.

It is, therefore, telling when she spits out a stone from her mouth on the day of her execution.

This brings me to Kent’s writing. It’s strong, evocative and often visceral. She uses motifs, like the ravens and stones, to reinforce her ideas. (It’s probably not coincidental, either, that the novel has thirteen chapters!). She is though, a first-time novelist, and at times the writing becomes a little heavy-handed, like this, for example:

Sometimes, after talking to the Reverend, my mouth aches. My tongue feels so tired; it slumps in my mouth like a dead bird, all damp feathers, in between the stones of my teeth.

But who’s complaining? Burial rites is a magical read that gets you in from the first page and doesn’t let you go until you get out your hanky at the end. Consider yourself warned.

awwchallenge2014Hannah Kent
Burial rites
Sydney: Picador, 2013
Design: Sandy Cull
ISBN: 9781742612829

37 thoughts on “Hannah Kent, Burial rites (Review)

    • Yes, me too, Tara. As you read, I was saving it but it was hard to hold out! It’s a read that you can pick holes in if you want to – depending on your philosophical perspective and reading preferences – but it is a great story, intelligently written.

  1. WG: Another excellent review of a book which I read around the time the Ben STILLER movie “Walter Mitty” appeared. The hard but beautiful landscape as revealed in that movie complemented the images I was creating in my mind from the reading. My wife and I decided then that somewhere in the not too far off we must go there! To Iceland. [She can be Christine Alfrídsdóttir while I’ll be James Stewartsson.] Thanks for the review – the reminder of this story – and of Hannah KENT’s genius.

  2. What an excellent review. This is the book I wrote my very first blog post about and you have really nailed it with this review. I loved the book and found the last few pages to be terrifying and compelling.

  3. Thanks for an excellent review of a book you have convinced me to read. I love the concept of “speculative biography” not “historical fiction”. I just read and will some post my review of The Moor’s Account, the story of an African, Muslim slave with a small group of Spanish explorers. Its another example of this kind of writing that takes all the available facts and reinterprets them from an unfamiliar perspective.

    • Thanks Marilyn … Though as I read the comments I think, oh, maybe I should have said that too. But it was already getting close to being my longest review. I’ll look out for The moor’s account.

  4. Hi Sue, loved your review. I just read Burial Rites, last week. Very much on demand at my local library. It is a great read. The conditions so harsh and yet so real. The characters were well rounded and believable. I can still see that axe!

  5. I’ve been looking forward to your review of this ever since I clung to the book and raced through it, absolutely loving it, after getting it for Christmas. It is so deeply, deeply evocative, and gripping, and I love the way Hannah weaves together so many different threads – gender, power, love, friendship, loneliness, independence, suspicion, trust, the harshness of life, the power of hope, and the awfulness of the end. Wonderful. This is a novel, like The Book Thief, that reminds me of the power and beauty of reading.

  6. HI Sue, lovely review. I agree that it is an excellent debut, and the landscape is captured very well. I had a problem with Agnes coughing up the stone, though. I didn’t think this bit of magical realism belonged in the story she was telling despite some of the set-up she had done. It seemed clunky to me, and unnecessary. Still, it’s a compelling read. Her next is set in Ireland, I believe. She is already quite the global author! John

    • Thanks John … There are parts of the novel we can question I think … But it is such a powerful story told with such heart and care that it deserves the love it’s getting, doesn’t it? It moves you, without being sentimental or melodramatic, and without really demonising, though Blöndal is close!

  7. I saw her on Australian Story, and then came online to read all about it … I was (a) seized with jealous rage at her success, and (b) pleased that an Aussie had been so daring as to take up this story. I shan’t read it because I can’t cope with anything but happy endings. But I loved the review; and if I were a normal person, would definitely be influenced by it !

    • MR!! You make me laugh! But I appreciate you confidence in me. Yes I saw The Australian Story too. No idea how I managed to hang out so long to read it … Hmm, just noticed this went into moderation. Weird.

      • There are a couple of weird things going on right now; it’s because Automattic are constantly dreaming up new things to change. I’m not much of a one for change … Surpise. Not. 🙂

        • LOL … Yes, is that affecting photos too? I had the devil of a time adding the book image to this review! Certainly media interface has changed. I tell myself to accept change graciously but sometimes I have to yell it to drown out the other self’s whinging!

  8. Great review! I read it more than six months ago, but it’s one of those books you don’t forget – the atmosphere and immediacy of detail stay with you for a long time.

  9. I haven’t read this yet! I intended to but then it was chosen as one of my book club choices for this year. I need to wait patiently to find out which month it has been chosen for!

  10. This sounds wonderful and it is even available in the US! I very much enjoyed your review. Since I have never heard of the book before everything you said was fresh so you had no need to worry 🙂

    • Oh good, Stefanie… Yes, I think it got a multiple-country book deal, and there’s now a movie deal. But, now I come to think of it, I haven’t seen it pop up on non-Aussie blogs, though it’s been reviewed by many papers in the US and UK, I think.

  11. Pingback: Historical Fiction 2014 update and overview | New Australian Women Writers Challenge Blog

  12. Sue, I’ve *finally* read this, in a bit over a day. I liked it, but was disappointed – if those two feelings can stand side by side. I loved the story of Agnes but was frustrated by the device used to tell it – that the assistant reverend is used as a plot device from half way through, and then the switching back and forth between Agnes’s voice and the third person for what was no reason while she was telling her story. I think it’s this half way point that got me – and I wasn’t looking to pick holes in it – just essentially losing the rest of the family’s story to make way for the linear telling of Agnes’s. I also found some of the descriptions very special, and some very odd, which made me think she tried to put clever phrases together without thinking of them. And yet! So glad the story was told and the imagery and Agnes’s feelings will stay with me a long time. The behaviour of Natan was beautifully articulated.

    • Thanks so much for coming back to share you thoughts on the book Tara. I didn’t have quite as much trouble with the method of telling as you did, but I do understand what you are saying. In the end, as you say, it’s great that she told the story. It will be interesting to see what she does next I think. A pretty amazing first novel.

  13. Sue, I have finally read Burial Rites and just loved it. Not only am I constantly thinking of Agnes’s life journey, (her earlier days every bit as disturbing as her final days) but also how it affected Margret and in particular the Assistant Reverend. He remained steadfast to his God in his unwavering support of Agnes. I cannot help imagining and fretting how the whole process affected him both physically and psychologically…….. All this amid an extraordinary landscape. Thank you for a terrific review.

    • Thanks so much Diane for commenting. It’s lovely to hear from you. I’m so glad you enjoyed it too. She’s done such a great job hasn’t she of getting into some of those heads, particularly the young Reverend as you say. And the whole history – the way prisoners were handled in that society then, for example – provides such an interesting backdrop.

  14. Great review. I only just read the book, but I really liked it a lot – so evocative. I like the idea of speculative biography – perhaps it enables the writer to explore ideas more deeply. Sometimes when I read fiction based on factual events I get irritated by not knowing ‘what really happened’ but I didn’t feel that with Burial Rites, because it felt bigger than the events she talked about – if that makes sense?

    • Yes it does maamej. Perfectly.

      That’s a reasonable response response to fiction based on factual events. For me though it doesn’t irritate, as l tend to be very conscious of the fictional form and so be prepared. But, curiosity will get me, and I will often check Wikipedia at the end to find out how much the author might have strayed from the truth. (I do this with biopics too.) Of course sometimes there are gaps in the truth which may be why the author has written the book, then we’ll never know.

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