Thursday, January 23, 2014

Burial Rites - Hannah Kent

I can’t say I’m hugely well versed in Icelandic historical fiction, to start with, but I suspect it’s a bit of an unplumbed depth. If anyone has encountered any previously, please tell me, because I am now jonesing for more. Which is a roundabout way of saying yes, Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites is worth your time, and yes, you wont have read anything like this before.

Hannah Kent ticks all the boxes - this is her debut novel, she’s an Adelaidean, she’s doing a PhD and is a year younger than me, all of which inspires flaming jealousy in me like you would not believe. Also cute as a button and bespectacled, a point of sadness since my vision is 20/20. And on top of everything, her debut is brilliant - sharp, brutal and hugely atmospheric. Her Iceland is a barren hellscape and a character in it’s own right, very far removed from my vague previous concept of Iceland as a snowy crystalline fairyland (thanks, Bjork).

The set up for Burial Rites is deceptively simple. Agnes Magnusdottir is sentenced to death for the murder of her employer and his friend, and in a politically motivated move, it’s decided she will be kept on a local farmstead until the day itself. The family who own the farmstead aren’t given a choice in the matter, and react to their visitor/prisoner in a full spectrum of ways. The viewpoint jumps from third person to Agnes’ first person, which I found a bit odd initially, but since the cast is small it was a reasonably short adjustment - but it also jumps around in the time stream, which took a bit longer. She recounts her story to different people, but the full chronological layout isn’t obvious until the final few pages. The circumstances surrounding Agnes’ guilt (or lack thereof) are scattered through the book, and by the final stages I was making disbelieving noises at the level of unfairness in Agnes’ treatment. Oh - and it’s a true story. Agnes was the last woman in Iceland to be sentenced to death, in 1830.

I’d like to have a moment of appreciation for good editing, which BR has. There’s this recurring perception with Literary Fiction that if it isn’t a 600 page Picoult behemoth it almost isn’t value for money, and definitely the biggest gripe I have when I dip my toe into Adult Literature is that the author seems unwilling to let an opportunity for massive exposition or metaphor or just flat out environment description pass by, and thus the whole thing reads more like self-indulgence than something that’s been crafted with the reader in mind. BR is very - spare. There are no more words than strictly necessary, and nothing is dwelled on or waxed lyrical thereof (I don’t even know what grammatically just happened there). And somehow there is still enough descriptive environmental details to paint the picture - the picture being a bleak, painful and somewhat unhygienic one.

One of the unexpected intrigues of Burial Rites is how revolting, freezing and difficult daily life is for the characters. The food is gristly, oily and unappetizing, letting a fire go out can condemn a whole family to death and even relatively comfortable families live two steps ahead of poverty all the time. Similarly Kent doesn’t glorify her cast - all the characters are hard as nails, and as grim and unforgiving as the landscape itself. There are lice, fleas, rats and illness; when Agnes finds another character kicking the corpse of a sheep, her immediate angry response is about the ruining of the pelt, as opposed to the death of the animal. The environment Kent creates is very harsh, and it’s people have realistically adapted to it.

None of this really communicates how fast and easy a narrative this is. I don’t know how such awfulness can be easy to read, but it is - you will most likely power through this book. It took me a day. Seriously now, how does an Australian write so vividly about below-freezing weather? Shenanigans.


  1. I want to read this but as it is such a grim subject I think I shall hold off til Winter is upon us. Great review though! X

    1. OK I caved and ordered it from Bookworld haha.