Burial Rites by Hannah Kent: A Review!

 A brilliant literary debut, inspired by a true story: the final days of a young woman accused of murder in Iceland in 1829.
Set against Iceland's stark landscape, Hannah Kent brings to vivid life the story of Agnes, who, charged with the brutal murder of her former master, is sent to an isolated farm to await execution.

Horrified at the prospect of housing a convicted murderer, the family at first avoids Agnes. Only Tóti, a priest Agnes has mysteriously chosen to be her spiritual guardian, seeks to understand her. But as Agnes's death looms, the farmer's wife and their daughters learn there is another side to the sensational story they've heard.

Riveting and rich with lyricism, BURIAL RITES evokes a dramatic existence in a distant time and place, and asks the question, how can one woman hope to endure when her life depends upon the stories told by others?

The museum Glumbær, in a cold January. Glumbær was once a wealthy farm in the Skagafjörður area. - See more at: http://www.picador.com/blog/august-2013/burial-rites-a-photo-essay-from-iceland#sthash.paoqUG7e.dpuf
 The museum Glumbær, in a cold January. Glumbær was once a wealthy farm in the Skagafjörður area.(Photo from Amazon, The Guardian, and Picador. Taken by Hannah Kent)

This is a debut novel written by a 28 year old Australian woman based on her time spent in Iceland. Burial Rites has won awards, it has received much notoriety and recognition, so where  to begin…

Let’s begin with what is known and told to us with a writing style that is so evocatively humanizing in its magnificence and strength of tale that I can’t wait to see how Hannah Kent follows this one up. 

The cast of characters were real people: Agnes Magnusdottir  (1795-1830), a meager housekeeper, Natan Ketilsson (1792-1828), a herbalist and farmer who happens to be Agnes’s lover and employer; Rosa Gudmundsdottir (1795-1855), another of Natan’s lovers and Iceland’s famous poets of the early nineteenth century.  

A multi-layered love triangle seems to be the catalyst behind this double murder in rural Iceland. Here is what is known: 

On a spring night in 1828, Agnes woke the household next door to tell them the Illugastadir farmhouse was on fire. Natan and his friend Petur Jonsson, she said, were trapped inside. The fire was  eventually put out but not before it became clear that the two men had been stabbed before the fire. She was arrested, along with a farmhand named Fridrik and his sixteen year old girlfriend, Siggi, later sent to prison in Copenhagen. Agnes and Fridrik were beheaded by Natan’s brother on a small hill in Hunavatnssysla on the 12th of January 1830. 

One of many standout points of Burial Rights is the skill in which Hannah Kent cleverly lets Agnes’s true story unfold in a series of flashback scenes as we get to know her written in twin narratives of the murders and the ghastly executions.  What a refreshing writing style and perspective to what could be a story of an isolated woman imprisoned in a home because there were no prisons in rural nineteenth century Iceland. Not exactly the subject to a page turning novel but in Hannah Kent’s hands, her astute research and passion for her subjects, comes through brilliantly warming up the location and the cast of characters. You do not immediately hate Agnes; you might pity her and Natan but you must continue reading as the story unfolds even though you know it will end in execution and bloodshed. 

I really enjoyed the way Hannah Kent began various chapter points by introducing  images of Supreme Court trial transcript pages of 1829 quoting Agnes’s testimony as well as one of Rosa’s poems written in June 1828 address to Agnes:

Don’t be surprised by the sorrow in

my eyes

not at the bitter pangs of pain that I feel:

For you have stolen with your scheming

he who gave my life meaning

and thrown your life to the Devil to deal

Agnes, an educated woman, responded with a verse of her own:

 This is my only wish to you,

Bound in anger and grief:

Do not scratch my bleeding wounds,

I’m full of disbelief.

 Photo by Hannah Kent, from The Guardian newspaper article.

Now we are riding across Iceland's north, across this black island washing in its water, sulking in its ocean. Chasing our shadows across the mountains.
  They have strapped me to the saddle like a corpse being taken to the burial ground. In their eyes I am already a dead woman, destined for the grave. My arms are tethered in front of me. As we ride the awful parade, the irons pinch my flesh until it bloodies in front of my eyes. I have come to expect harm now. Some of the watchmen at Stora-Borg compassed my body with small violences, chronicled their hatred towards me, a mark here, bruises, blossoming like star clusters under the skin, black and yellow smoke trapped under the membrane. I suppose some of them had known Natan. 
 But now they take me east, and although I am tied like a lamb for slaughter, I'm grateful that I am returning to the valleys where rocks give way to grass, even if I will die there.
As the horses struggle through the tussocks, I wonder when they will kill me. I wonder where they will store me, cellar me like butter, like smoked meat. Like a corpse, waiting for the ground to unfreeze before they can  pocket me in the earth like a stone.
 They do not tell me these things. Instead, they set me in iron cuffs and lead me round, and like a cow I go where I am led, and there's no kicking or it's the knife. It's the rope and a grim end. I put my head down, go where they take me and hope it's not to the grave, not yet.

The museum Glumbær, in a cold January. Glumbær was once a wealthy farm in the Skagafjörður area. - See more at: http://www.picador.com/blog/august-2013/burial-rites-a-photo-essay-from-iceland#sthash.paoqUG7e.dpuf


Hels said…
Very interesting. If you had asked before hand, would you be interested in reading an Australian novel about an early 19th century woman executed in rural Iceland, the answer would most likely have been no. Especially for me since I don't believe in capital punishment ever... and especially not for people who did not commit the crime.

So what would you say is the key attraction, now you have read the novel? I assume you loved her telling the true story in a series of flashbacks, leading up to the murders and executions.
Kimberly Eve said…
Hi Hels,
The key attraction, for myself, is the way Hannah Kent humanized a group of people highlighting various aspects of their life through gripping and intelligent writing. Hannah Kent was fascinated by Agnes's life story and what happened to her in Iceland during a certain time in her life. She told the story that she felt and that she researched. I enjoyed reading Burial Rites because I sensed a fairness in the author's depiction of these people and a need to let them be heard and remembered.

Retrovit said…
Thanks for review, it was excellent and very informative.
thank you :)