(My Rating: 5/5)
An unusual story in an unusual setting, Burial Rites is Hannah Kent’s impressive debut novel, based on real life events that took place in Iceland in 1829.
Agnes Magnúsdóttir has been sentenced to death for the murder of her lover and it has been decided that she, along with the other two people who were party to the crime, be executed in the district where they committed the act. Since the district has no suitable place, such as a public house or factory, in which the prisoner can be housed till the execution date, the district commissioner decides that they should be put up at local farms – houses of ordinary citizens. And this is how Agnes, who in real life was the last woman to be executed in Iceland, comes to stay at the home of District Officer of Vatnsdalur, Jón Jónsson, his wife Margrét and their two daughters. Imagine a convicted murderer coming to live (and work) in your home!
This book is a page-turner done well. Hannah Kent, looks at the whole incident from Agnes’s point of view and this is what makes it an unusual book – who was she? What sort of an upbringing did she have? What were the incidents that led up to the murder? What of her loves and joys and sorrows? Was she just an ‘evil’ woman or was there more to her?
The separate dynamics between Agnes and each of the members of the household are quite believable, with Kent having crafted her characters very well.
(SPOILER ALERT FOR THE NEXT PARAGRAPH!)
While reading the novel, one slowly starts to get the feeling that Agnes is beginning to grow on Margrét and then at Pg 200, which for me was the most powerful scene in the book, this is confirmed. With one act, Agnes cements a comfortable place for herself in Margrét’s estimation and their equation begins to change from there on, though perhaps Margrét doesn’t want to admit this to herself.
(SPOLIER ALERT ENDED!)
I think the method employed by Kent of telling the story in the third person and interspersing this with the first person “thoughts” of Agnes works very well in this novel. Kudos to Kent for this, for I believe if not done well, such a technique could end up being very confusing for the reader. In the case of Burial Rites, she has made it work perfectly.
I also enjoyed the interview with Hannah Kent that my edition came with. It gives an understanding of how much effort went into writing this novel, an author’s techniques, the ups and downs that are inevitable when one sets out to write a book, Kent’s painstaking research and finally, her undeniable love for Iceland, where she spent a considerable amount of time, both before and after the idea came to her to write this book.
Kent also includes – and this fits in seamlessly into the whole story – a lot about the landscape, culture and traditions of Iceland. I learnt about things such as how Icelanders derive their surnames, the old ways of salting and storing food before the onset of the harsh winters and the descriptions of the uniquely beautiful landscape has now made Iceland one of the places I’d love to visit some day.
An all round remarkable job for a debut novel!