So much has been written about this book, I feel pretty sure that by now you know it is the fictionalised story of an Icelandic woman found guilty of murder in the 1820s. You may possibly also know that this book, rich in Icelandic saga and with Iceland present on every page of the story, is written by a young Australian.
If this book does not win a drawerful of awards, it will make me lose faith in literary awards. The confidence with which the story is told defies the knowledge that this is a debut novel, any allowances I had mentally made for a debut are not required. Not only does Kent write a historical novel set in a foreign country with a difficult language, from page one you are in Iceland. Put aside the names of people, the names of the farms [the map at the front of my edition was much thumbed in the beginning, then forgotten], Iceland surrounds you as you read the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir. You sit with her in the badstofa, the smell of the dung walls in your lungs, the dirt under your fingernails.“The herb plot of Kornsá is overgrown and wild, surrounded by a rough stone wall that has toppled to the ground at one end. Most of the plants have gone to seed, frostbitten roots rotting in the warmer weather, but there are tansies, and little bitter herbs I remember from Natan’s workshop at Illugastadir, and the angelica smells sweetly.” Natan is the man Agnes is found guilty of murdering. Whilst awaiting arrangements for her execution she is placed with a local family – as is the tradition, this being a rural area with no prisons, no police stations, justice is managed locally – who receive a little extra silver in recompense for their service. Her story is told through a series of official letters about the trial, Agnes own voice and that of Tóti, the reverend she requests to prepare her for execution.
Agnes is made to work for her keep, she is not shackled or locked away. The family is poor, an extra pair of hands to work the land is valuable, even if they watch her every minute. Agnes, for her part, enjoys the fresh air during harvest. “I let my body fall into a rhythm. I sway back and forth and let gravity bring the scythe down and through the grass, until I rock steadily. Until I feel that I am not moving myself, and that the sun is driving me. Until I am a puppet of the wind, and of the scythe, and of the long, slow strokes that propel my body forward. Until I couldn’t stop if I wanted to.”
I was gripped from page one, wanting to know the end of the story, not wanting it to end. Kent has combined poetry with a murder mystery – by the way don’t listen to those reviews which class it as Scandi-crime, this is so much more than that.To visit Hannah Kent’s website, click here.
Click here to read an interview in The Guardian with Hannah Kent [above] in which she explains how she was a long-distance writer.
To watch the book trailer for Burial Rites on You Tube, click here.
To listen to Hannah Kent talk about her visit to Iceland and where the idea for Burial Rites came from, click here.
‘Burial Rites’ by Hannah Kent