I think it is far to say that in the time since it has been published, less than a month, Burial Rites has become a bit of a ‘sensation’. It is everywhere, and everyone seems to be talking about it. I don’t usually rush to read books that have a lot of hype around them, but I was genuinely attracted to the story this book tells, and I had to buy myself a copy.
The UK cover is also beautiful. The pages are edged in black too, which not only fits with the colour scheme of the cover but adds a sense of the gothic, of something dark and cold; it hints at the sad story within.
When Hannah Kent was a student in her native Australia, she went on an exchange trip to Iceland. She was seventeen, alone in a foreign land entirely different from her own, and felt like an outsider. She came across the story of Agnes Magnusdottir – the last woman to be executed in Iceland. Agnes was an outsider too, and Kent felt some small connection with her. On her return to Australia, the story of Agnes stayed with Kent, and she ended up choosing her story for her PhD thesis – the manuscript that would become Burial Rites. After taking a research trip to Iceland, where she poured over records and archives, Kent wrote her own version of Agnes’ story.
In her early thirties Agnes was convicted, along with a young man named Fridrik Sigurdsson, of the murders of two men, Natan Ketilsson and Petur Jonsson. The murders were committed in 1828 and the pair were executed in 1830. At the time Iceland was under the rule of the Danish Crown, and prisoners were usually sent to Denmark to serve time, or to be executed. A lack of money meant that Agnes and Fridrik were kept in Iceland – first in rudimentary prisons, and then placed on separate farms to work and repent. Agnes was placed on a farm called Kornsa, as the owner, Jon Jonsson, was a District Commissioner. Burial Rites begins as Agnes is moved from her temporary prison and taken to Kornsa.
The family there are informed that they must house her, and given no choice in the matter. They are scandalised and fearful for their safety; but Margret, the mother, takes some pity on Agnes and asks for her shackles to be removed. She also helps her to wash, and gives her clean clothes. The prisoner is set to work on the farm, and she is given a young priest to help her pray and repent for her crimes as she prepares to ‘meet her destiny’. Over the course of the novel we hear more and more about Agnes’ life, abandoned by her mother and shuffled between farms as a servant; and we learn about how she came to know Natan Ketilsson, to live with him – and to kill him.
The narration alternates between third person, and first person in Agnes’ voice. It is a very real voice, if that makes sense – I imagine Kent would have had to empathise as much as possible and really try to put herself in Agnes’ shoes. The despair, longing, sadness, resignation and fear the Agnes feels during her time at Kornsa are all relayed to the reader through Kent, and you really feel that Agnes is speaking to you from 1829. I know that sounds corny, but the voice is just so believable, so down to earth and relatable that the real Agnes seems to connect with Kent’s fictional version of her.
While we empathise and sympathise with Agnes and her terrible fate, we also see every flaw in her character, and believe that she may have been capable of murder. Yet, I still doubted at times whether she was guilty; and even if she was, I did not want her to die. Iceland and the UK no longer have the death penalty, and this book, I think, explains why that is so important. Even is someone has committed something as terrible and unforgivable as murder, killing them does not make things right; and they are still a person. They don’t deserve to die – no one does. And when you have read this book, and heard Agnes’ story, you will wish that she did not have to die for what she did – and not in the way that she did.
I finished Burial Rites just before bed a couple of nights ago, and it kept me awake. I felt an immense sadness for Agnes. The final pages are particularly heart wrenching and I wished I could take away Agnes’ fear. Hannah Kent is a truly beautiful writer, who has engaged deeply with a strange and mysterious woman from more than a hundred years ago, and brought her to life again in the 21st century. But it was not only sadness for Agnes that kept me awake. It was an overwhelming sense of emotional connection with many of the characters in this novel, Margret in particular. I will be thinking about this novel, and the people within it, for a long time.
Published by Picador in the UK, and by Little, Brown in the US, in September 2013.