Burial Rites represents one of the outstanding recent literary debuts. It is a haunting, brooding story of the last woman to be executed in Iceland. A historical novel, based on a true story, it has attracted considerable acclaim and award nominations, most notably the 2014 Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction.
In March 1828, the bodies of Natan Ketilson and Pétur Jónsson were found in the burnt ruins of Natan’s farmhouse in remote northern Iceland. An examination of the corpses revealed deliberate injuries to both men leading the authorities to conclude that this was a case of murder and arson. Three people; a farmer’s son, Fridrik Sigurdsson and work maids Sigrídur Gudmundsdóttir and Agnes Magnusdóttir, were found guilty. While Sigridur was seen as being an unfortunate, caught up in the intrigue of the other two, Fridrik was looked to as being the one capable of inflicting the injuries to the deceased and Agnes was singled out as being the mastermind of the plot. Consequently, Fridrik and Agnes were to be beheaded.
Agnes is proving to be a problem for the District Commissioner, Björn Blöndal, in custody. Admittedly the conditions she is being kept in are revolting and inhumane, but she has not been eating and has expressed dissatisfaction with the spiritual counsel she has been receiving. Accordingly Blöndal is having Agnes moved to stay with Jón Jónsson, a District Officer under his authority, and Jón’s family on his farm until her time of execution. Similarly he has requested Assistant Reverend Thorvardur ‘Toti’ Jónsson, Agnes spiritual advisor of choice, to visit Agnes.
Agnes’ arrival at the Jónsson home scandalises their small community and Jónsson’s wife and two daughters can barely abide by the order to keep a convicted murderess in their home. They fear for their lives, their possessions and their reputations. Agnes too knows she cannot expect any respect or geniality but knows too that these people do not know her or her past or her story. In fact no one does and she is alone in the world.
Toti does not offer the reassurance that Agnes might have hoped for. He is far too inexperienced for his charge and feels nervous and uncertain around Agnes but is emboldened by thoughts of his duty towards her.
The family is not without their own problems. Their subsistence is fragile in their harsh environment and they toil endlessly to get by. They have stripped the wood from the walls of their home, now lined with turf, to pay debts and have had two servants die from damp. Margaret, Jón’s wife, sounds increasingly consumptive as she coughs frequently. The Jónsson’s will have to try and make the best of a bad situation and use the labour that Agnes can provide and the small compensation promised for taking her in.
Agnes proves herself dutiful and competent at the work given her on the farm, even more so than Margaret’s two daughters. Routine and familiarity put the women more at ease around each other and soon they are even extending courtesies to Agnes. As the weather turns cold the women spend the evenings close to the fire knitting and sowing and it is here, at Toti’s provoking, Agnes begins telling her life story. She shares the illegitimacy of her origins, her repeated abandonment and how she came to meet, work for and love Natan, the man she has been found guilty of murdering.
As her story slowly unfolds, Toti, the family and in particular Margaret are forced to re-examine their feelings towards Agnes in the light of the events of her life, all that she has fought against and all the misfortune that came her way.
Burial Rites is the first novel by Hannah Kent and the buzz around it has been deafening, especially here in her native Australia. The manuscript alone prompted a bidding war amongst publishers and rumours of a seven figure sum for the US rights. All for a first novel from a 26 year old. It has been considered by many to be an outstanding literary debut from the past year or so and has been blessed with strong sales and award nominations, most notably a shortlisting for the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction.
Kent first heard the story of Agnes Magnusdóttir as a teenager on a Rotary exchange to Iceland. She has said in interviews that if she had known how much work and research it was to take for Agnes’ story to emerge and the novel to be completed, she may never have started. It is a historical novel; the events and main characters are drawn from real events and people and Agnes Magnusdóttir was the last person to be executed in Iceland. Telling this story has been a long mission for Kent and he novel benefits considerably from her research and efforts.
There is no doubt that this is an enjoyable and well-crafted novel. The immense research Kent has undertaken enriches and enlivens the narrative by providing all the little details of customs, practices, superstitions and social norms of rural life in early 19th century Iceland. The passage where the family and Agnes participate in the slaughter of sheep; collecting the blood, making sausages, smoking the meat, boiling the bones; was particularly illuminating.
This novel frequently put me to mind of Wuthering Heights. In the sense that the harsh existence in a rugged landscape almost becomes a character in the novel. This too is a story of a person not given an equal chance in life due to iniquitous social convention. A person who struggles to find a place for themselves in the world, whose opportunities are scant and whose love goes unrequited.
The social or feminist message in the novel also cannot escape mention. This is after all the story of a woman who has been horribly wronged her whole life, through no fault of her own, by the patriarchal society she was born into. The illegitimacy of her birth and abandonment meant she was never really given a chance. “No doves come from ravens eggs”. Her obvious intelligence only makes her less trustworthy in the eyes of others, best exemplified by the differential treatment given to her co-accused Sigrídur, who is pretty and simple. The freedom she tries to exhibit or the happiness she tries to pursue in her romantic or sexual choices have only made her easier to condemn. Kent in her research found that some of the books written about these events “hold a common view of Agnes as ‘an inhumane witch, stirring up murder’”. Further there is a suggestion that there is institutionalised prejudice against her from the authorities who condemn her to death. Kent though, to the novels benefit, keeps these themes subtle and leaves the reader to dwell on them rather than turn the novel into a polemic.
While there is much to recommend this novel, I can’t help but mention a couple of minor things that came up for me.
I found the story to be too linear. It is mostly the story of Agnes’ time on the Jónsson’s farm and the tasks and routines of her life there, while she tells her life story to Toti and the family. There are passages of Agnes’ private thoughts, and correspondence between various authorities regarding her captivity and impending execution. But once I was more than half way through the novel I began yearning for a bigger diversion, for the plot to take an unexpected turn off the main path. It is a frequent issue with many historical novels and based-on-a-true-story films that staying true to the history can be a restraint to the storytelling. Again, this is a minor issue that may only exist in my head and the fact that the novel is rich with interesting detail helps you enjoy it while staying on the main path.
There is also, admittedly, a Lit Snob inside me that keeps asking if this novel delivered anything truly innovative. As well written as it is, is it more craft than art? Are the characters or scenes going to live on with me now that I have finished the book? I think at the end of the day, I have to try to push the jaded snob aside, abstain from applying excessive expectations and be fair to this book.
Admittedly I have not read many Women’s Prize shortlisters, although I have many on my shelves. Burial Rites does have impressive competition for the 2014 prize, notably from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Donna Tartt and Jhumpa Lahiri. But I still feel confident in believing this to be a worthy shortlister, even a favourite (the winner will be announced on June 4th).
Burial Rites is an excellent work, an ambitious project that succeeds because of the passion, dedication and talent from its author. While the story will intrigue and the details will illuminate, it is the mood and tone that define it. It is a class act and deserves the high praise, sales and buzz it has enjoyed.
PS – Update 05/06/2014 – And the Women’s Prize went to… Eimear McBride for A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing. Also a debut novel and not one of the favourites to win by most accounts. Congratulation to McBride who, like Kent, is a newcomer we should hope to see more from.