I’ve just finished Hannah Kent’s much-anticipated debut novel, Burial Rites. I read the acknowledgements, and the author’s note; I even flick to the publication details to see if there’s anything else in there – the literary equivalent of licking the bowl. I wipe away the tears I shed during the final pages, and I sit still for a while, because this is a book that has moved me.
Burial Rites is the story of Agnes Magnusdottir, the last woman to be executed in Iceland, in 1829. After it is deemed too expensive to keep Agnes in a proper prison, she is sent to the valley in which she grew up, to be kept in the home of the District Officer until her execution date. She elects a young clergyman, Toti, to help her prepare to meet death, and it is through a combination of conversations with Toti, fragmented memories, and eventual conversation with Margret, the lady of the house, that we come to know Agnes’ story.
This story is based on fact. As Kent discusses in her piece in the latest Kill Your Darlings, the facts available about Agnes Magnusdottir and her alleged crime were sparse, and the research required to create the skeleton of this book was quite arduous and demanding. The way that that skeleton has been fleshed out and fully clothed makes for an enjoyable and moving read. While I knew that the story had to end with Agnes’ execution, by the time I’d spent a few hundred pages with this character, I really felt wronged by her eventual arrival at the chopping block.
The writing is fantastic – right from the prologue, the chill of Iceland can be felt. The prose is pared right back, but this doesn’t make the story any less visceral. Kent also manages the distinguish between three different voices, right throughout the novel.
Hannah Kent’s project here is admirable, and it speaks to my own interests and priorities. There are gaps in histories, in legends and tales that get handed down through ages. As stated in Burial Rites’ author’s note, Agnes Magnusdottir was commonly seen “as ‘an inhumane witch, stirring up murder.'” Kent wrote Burial Rites “to supply a more ambiguous portrayal of this woman”, and I feel that she well and truly delivered in that aim. She has given a voice to a woman who has threatened to disappear in history as one-sided: bad.
This book is currently in the Dymocks Top 10 Bestsellers, and I’ll certainly be making an effort to get it out to as many people as possible. It’s a page-turner, it’s literary and well written, and it does an important job: it reconsiders history, and gives a voice to the unheard.
Hannah Kent will also be appearing at Readings in Hawthorn on Monday night, in conversation with Angela Meyer.