Burial Rites is, I think it’s fair to say, the much hyped debut of Hannah Kent. The book earned Kent a $1 million two-book advance and has won an armful of prizes – Fellowship of Australian Writers Christina Stead Award, Indie Awards Debut Fiction of the Year, Booktopia People’s Choice Award and nominated for the Stella Prize, to name only a few.
Much has been made of the authors young age (27) and how the book, and more particularly, its author, have been marketed. You can read about the marketing implications of such a large advance for a debut novelist here.
Burial Rites is the story of Agnes Magnusdottir, the last woman in Iceland to be condemned to death, in 1829. Kent discovered the story when she was an exchange student in Iceland.
In her last few months of her life after being sentenced, Agnes is sent to the Croft home of District Officer Jon Jonnson and his wife and their two daughters because there are no prisons to hold her. Toti, a young trainee reverend, is sent to be her spiritual guide before she dies. Agnes has been convicted of murder and who she murdered and how it came about gradually unfold though the story. The narrative is interspersed with reports from the real historical record.
Agnes is put to work on the farm alongside the women who understandably are at best resentful of having her around and at worst afraid of her. Gradually as we follow the family through the seasons, Agnes’ story is revealed via her talks with Toti, told from his point of view. The omniscient narrator shows us what the other characters think of having Agnes in their midst. We also get greater insight from Agnes’ first person point of view, which is a technique I found really interesting. What Agnes reveals to others compared to what she is thinking herself on how her life had come to this point is a clever way to withhold information and maintain narrative tension.
Kent’s research is immaculate and she does an amazing job of thoroughly immersing the reader in the life of Icelandic farmers, the hard labour in an unforgiving climate and the intimacy of life lived in a crowded house where there’s no privacy. Gradually as she tells her story to Toti, the hostility towards her from the women of the house breaks down. Its not until halfway through the story that we start to get some idea of the crime she’s been convicted of and Kent makes great use of the first person point of view to create intrigue.
The writing is vivid and simple, easily earning it the ‘commercial literary’ genre tag. There’s some lovely fresh images, especially those that evoke the climate, such as ‘It was late in the day: the wet mouth of the afternoon was full on my face.’ Another favourite was Agnes’ description of a particularly harrowing scene from her past.
‘A great deal of snow had blown in, and it melted into a large puddle on the floor, and I saw that puddle first, how it threw back the light admitted by the window, so that it was bright on the floor, like a looking glass.’
This is a strikingly evocative and novel story that maintains a great narrative tension throughout. Some of the writing is beautiful and its hard to find fault with many things in the story. I’m not sure all of the hype is completely justified because it sets up such a huge expectation, but it is a good, albeit bleak, story.