Burial Rites by Hannah Kent, published by Picador, September 2013.
This novel was a best seller before it was even available in print, and international publication rights were sold for a cool $1 million, unheard of for a first novel by an Australian author. The story of writing it began when Kent went to Iceland at the age of 17 on Rotary exchange, and since then she has returned to Iceland several times, and has done extensive research into the central character, her setting and time (early 19th century).
Hannah Kent has a blog; here you can watch a video, also on YouTube, which has a brief reading from the book, accompanied by the haunting theme song from my favourite ever TV crime show, the Danish series The Eagle. Here are the lyrics; the song was composed for the series (I believe) by Jacob Groth, and it is sung by his wife, Lisen Groth:
I’m a roamer in time
I travel alone
Throughout an endless journey
Where is my home
Fragments of a love life
I won’t surrender
When the spirits are calling my name
Then I will have passed all the sorrow and pain
And I’ll go to heaven with you
I’ll lay down my head on your pillow and ask for forgiveness
This is a totally appropriate introduction to this extraordinary book. First, a caveat; there are spoilers in this review; it’s impossible to talk about it meaningfully without then.
I was compelled to read it because for some years now, I’ve had a fascination with Scandinavia, especially Norway, where my great-grandfather was born, and Iceland. Why Iceland? Perhaps because it is such a tiny island, home to just over 300,00o people, the westernmost European country, on the edge of the Arctic Circle. You can read about its fascinating and troubled history here. In modern times, it is famous for achieving independence from Danish rule in 1944, enjoying a period of prosperity post-war, only to suffer financial collapse in the 2009 global economic crisis, and for the eruption of a volcano in 2010, which caused havoc with travel across Europe. But I am fascinated by its early modern links with the Vikings; by its culture, which seems to be a mix of extreme modernity in the city and rural simplicity, survival of traditional customs and religious ways of thinking, and raw, elemental materiality; and by its geography, that of an Arctic desert punctuated by mountains, glaciers, geysers, volcanoes, hot springs and waterfalls.
Iceland, in Burial Rites, is seen only in microcosm, on a small, poor rural farm, through the depths of winter, with flashbacks to another rural district where the heroine lived before she is implicated in the brutal murder of a man, and convicted along with another young man and a woman. The other woman’s sentence is commuted to life imprisonment, but Agnes Magnusdottir and the man are sentenced to execution by beheading. Agnes is the second of the two for the chop, and so earns the dubious distinction of being the last person to be executed in Iceland, in 1828. These are factual events; Kent has woven a compelling novel from them, which intertwines Agnes’s first person narrative with a third person narrative. It does this seamlessly. The only exception to this are the extracts from historical documents about the condemned, interspersed throughout the book. I am with the reviewer Sarah Moss, in The Guardian here, who finds these intrusive:
I wish she had been brave enough to leave out the adapted and translated historical documents and allow Agnes to stand centre stage without anxiously plucking the reader’s sleeve to remind them that the views expressed are not the only possible versions of the story.
Her story unfolds through the device of her gradually telling it to Toti, who is an Assistant Reverend whom Agnes has asked for as her spiritual mentor. He is delegated by the powers that be to return the condemned woman to the Lord, ‘administer God’s word and inspire repentance and an acknowledgement of justice’. Whereas Agnes just wants someone whom she can trust to tell her story to. The inevitable happens; Toti falls in love with her, but keeps this to himself, and in the end, is able to give her the only possible gift: that of believing in her and being with her at the terrible end. And yes, I did weep, though until the last few pages, I was dry-eyed.
The fascinating theme of the book is the gradual untwisting of the threads which have sewn Agnes into a shroud of vicious criminality, to reveal the true story, as Kent imagines it, of how her love for Natan, the murdered man, entangles her in his own dark, upredictable, conflicted nature, and the jealousies and impulsive actions of the other two condemned. Another interesting sub-theme is the change in the way Agnes is perceived by those around her, as her story unfolds. Toti is, for much of the story, the only person who not only fully believes in her goodness and lack of criminality, but also the only one endowed with the role of hearing her story. This shifts, as for a time, his illness and the severe winter weather prevent him from visiting her, and she tells some of her story to Margret, wife of the farmer who is assigned to have Agnes stay in their home until her execution (there was no prison in Iceland where she could be held). The farmer and his family are very wary of Agnes at first, and treat her as a criminal, but gradually, this changes, as they see how hard she works, her gift for healing, and get to know her story. Some of this is by osmosis, as the cottage is tiny, with only two rooms, a kitchen/storeroom and a ‘badstofa’ which doubles as living room and bedroom for all, including the servants and any visitors who stay overnight.
To end this rather rambling review, here is a passage from the narrative on Agnes’s last day of life, which illustrates the bone-bright, earthy, visceral prose that makes the landscape and the climate as compelling a character as any of the humans that inhabit it:
Now comes the darkening sky and a cold wind that passes right through you, as though you were not there, it passes through you as though it does not care whether you are alive or dead, for you will be gone and the wind will still be there, licking the grass flat upon the ground, not caring whether the soil is at freeze or thaw, for it will freeze and thaw again, and soon your bones, now hot with blood and thick-juicy with marrow, will be dry and brittle and flake and freeze and thaw with the weight of the dirt upon you, and the last moisture of your body will be drawn up to the surface by the grass, and the wind will come and knock it down and push you back against the rocks, or it will scrape you up under its nails and take you out to sea in a wild screaming of snow.