Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

The year is 1828. The members of the scattered but closely knit communities scraping a living in the harsh north west of Iceland have been shaken by the murder of two men. Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the workmaid of one of the murdered men, has been convicted of the crime. She, along with two fellow perpetrators, is in custody, pending the verdict of Copenhagen’s Supreme Court, Iceland being at this time a Danish dependency. It is expected that the sentences of death by beheading, passed at the District Court and upheld in Reykjavík, will stand. In the meantime, in the absence of a prison, the convicted persons are detained in three separate settlements, ‘on farms,’ in the words of Blöndal, the well-fed District Commissioner, ‘homes of upright Christians, who (will) inspire repentance by good example, and who (will) benefit from the work these prisoners do as they await their judgement.’

The story opens as Agnes is removed from the squalid conditions where she has hitherto been confined, and taken to Kornsá, the farm chosen for her imprisonment. The family here are less than happy at the idea of having a murderess at such close quarters, but have little choice in the matter. And, in an existence where a District Officer can only afford to live in a ‘hovel that had spread its own state of collapse to its inhabitants’, the promise of remuneration cannot be ignored. It really is close quarters. Everyone sleeps in one room, the badstofa. Agnes works alongside Margrét and her two daughters. It is not long before the whole family becomes entwined in her narrative.


So how is it to read? Deceptively simple in some ways, being a linear narrative of the summer and winter of 1829. The point of view shifts around the main characters, in first person with Agnes and third person with the others. When we meet her, Agnes is voiceless. For the year since the murders, she has been starved, beaten and ignored, and kept in a frozen place of isolation. Through her thoughts, though, we see someone other than the the cutout figure of ‘the murderess’, and it is this person with whom the Kornsá family gradually bond.

 One of the difficulties of writing fiction based on actual events is that we know what is going to happen. Agnes was the last person to be executed in Iceland. This is a fact, hanging over the narrative like the bad fairy’s curse, with no hope of a reversal. I’m not giving anything away here: the title of the book and the funereally black-edged pages do that for me. But does the fact that we know the end take something away from the forward drive of the story? Or is there rather a sense of release from the tension of wondering what is going to happen, so that we can concentrate on the smaller increments of disclosure? Throughout, we are kept guessing about the true nature of the crime. The story of Agnes’ pitiful childhood of neglect and abandonment unfolds into an adulthood overshadowed by the portents of ravens. We are sympathetic to her, but why wouldn’t we be? We are hearing about it through her, and maybe she is as unreliable as the eponymous heroine of Alias Grace. Agnes describes time as being ‘as slippery as oil’; I would extend this metaphor to guilt. As with Hardy’s Tess, there is more to guilt than the moment of action. But, as the historical documents which preface the chapters show, guilt must be apportioned by the rules of the nation.

There are many echoes: of witch trials and Viking sagas, of our endless fascination with stories of fallen women and jealous women. And there is drama in being the last of something. Why do we know about Ruth Ellis? Because she was the last woman to undergo the death penalty. There’s a glamour in retrospect, a fascination, hence Agnes’ story was still being told when Hannah Kent first visited Iceland in 2002. It’s a narrative that touches our collective souls.

It is, above all, a story about place, described by the author herself as ‘a dark love letter to Iceland’. In a feat all the more remarkable considering this is her first novel, written about a time and a place that could scarcely be further from her own experience, Kent creates an immersive world where you breathe in the stench of an overcrowded, smoke-filled room in winter, and feel the relief of stepping out into the rain with ‘the wet mouth of the afternoon’ all over your face.

Burial Rites may be dark, but it has a poetic soul, and Kent appears to be unable to write a dud note. I recently voted for her in the Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize, and the fact that she was on the longlist before her book was even launched in the UK is telling. I am fully expecting her to feature on every prizelist there is in the year ahead.

Burial Rites

To read Hannah’s account of how Burial Rites came about, click here

Burial Rites is published by Picador and will be available in the UK from September 29th.

To keep up to date with events featuring Hannah, come to her website here

You can buy your very own copy of the book here

I’m very excited that I’ll be going to the UK launch of Burial Rites on September 28th. I’ll be posting about the event afterwards, so don’t forget to come back and check.



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