I’ve been avoiding Burial Rites. I’m not sure entirely why, but I avoided the chance to buy it cheaply and of all the Bailey’s Prize listed novels it’s been the one that least interested me. Perhaps it is because it has been touted as a ‘crime’ novel (which it is) and perhaps it is because of the cover which has those awful ‘Gripping’ says Kate Mosse (another writer I’ve avoided, probably quite unfairly. Now on the list, along with Tracy Chevalier who I’ve similarly avoided. Bad me. Reforming, reading more openly), A must-read’ says Grazia magazine (avoided, not unfairly I think). It’s a cover that smacks of desperation. ‘Please read me’ it says. I walk the other way.
Anyway, when I was picking up some books I really wanted to read from the library I saw Burial Rites sitting on the ‘new books’ shelf, untouched, and thought ‘oh go on then’ and I did, and this whole blog is a lesson to myself to never, ever judge a book by its cover and never judge a writer before you read them.
Burial Rites is based on a true story, the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir the last woman to be executed in Iceland. Agnes is accused of the murder of two men, Natan Ketilsson a farmer and herbalist and Péter Jónsson a visitor. Her accomplices are Fredrik Sigurdsson the son of a local farmer and Sigrídur Gudmundsdóttir a fellow workmaid. The men were violently killed and then the farm set on fire to disguise the crime. The novel draws on real letters from the time, though much of Agnes’s life, and in particular her final days, are fictionalised.
Before her execution, Agnes was sent to live with a District Officer, Jón Jónsson and his family on their farm. The story picks up from the time that Agnes is transferred to the farm. The District Officer’s wife Margrét and her two daughters Lauga and Steina are unhappy with the idea of a murderess living at their home, as are their neighbours. A priest is assigned at Agnes’s request, an Assistant Reverend Thorvardur Jónsson who is mystified to find that Agnes had requested him personally. These key characters descend upon Kornsá where Jón Jónsson’s farm is situated.
Not surprisingly the story begins quite coldly. Agnes is tolerated but unwanted, and she fits quietly into the role of servant, saying little and offering nothing more than labour. Yet Kent reveals the burning heart that lies beneath the quiet, compliant exterior. Agnes’s back story is revealed though her own, quiet remembrances and the gradual opening up to the inexperienced Reverend Thorvardur Jónsson, Toti. Through Agnes’s story we learn more about the terrible burden of poverty, at a time when orphans or abandoned children, often the bastard children of landowners, were tossed on the mercy of local charity. This often meant service work which for women often meant rape or sexual servitude both to the master and the other servants. As Agnes’s story develops, we discover that her failing, if any, was pursuing love in a place and time when none was offered nor, it seems to some views, due.
As Agnes’s story develops, so we see the sympathies of those around her turning. Slowly she stops being seen as the ‘murderess’ and becomes Agnes. Yet she is still awaiting fulfilment of her sentence of death. As the older and more learned of the two workmaids, perhaps also the less pretty, the heavier weight of blame is laid at Agnes’s door. Whilst the District Officer, Björn Blöndal, seeks leniency for the young and guileless Sigrid, Agnes is to serve her sentence as an example to others. It is, as Agnes notes ruefully, because she is too knowing that she must suffer. An intelligent, educated servant woman is something to be suspected and feared.
Through Agnes’s story Kent reveals the destitution of poverty, the sad burden placed on women in society, the ways in which people use, and abuse, other people for their personal gain. Around these stories Kent weaves the Icelandic winter with its endless hours of darkness, the fearsome beauty of the Northern Lights, the isolation and the deathly cold. It is a beautifully written book, mindful of the Icelandic sagas (Kent mentions she referenced the Laxdæla saga, in particular the line ‘I was worst to him I loved best’ when reflecting on Agnes’s story) and unafraid of dipping deep into this dark story from history. The prose is stunning, like here as Agnes reflects on her fate:
“He is so kind, he is reaching around me, he is pulling my body closer to his, but I don’t want him near. His mouth is opening and shutting like a fish, the bones of his face like knives under his skin, but I cannot help him, I do not know what he wants. Those who are not being dragged to their deaths cannot understand how the heart grows hard and sharp, until it is a nest of rocks with only an empty egg in it. I am barren; nothing will grow from me any more. I am the dead fish drying in the cold air. I am the dead bird on the shore. I am dry, I am not certain I will bleed when they drag me out to meet the axe. No, I am still warm, my blood still howls in my veins like the wind itself, and it shakes the empty next and asks where all the birds have gone, where have they gone?”
It is an emotional story, told without sentimentality. I’m not ashamed to say that I was moved to tears towards the end, as Agnes is being taken to the axe and a man, a stranger accompanying her on her journey, gives her some brandy. “’Drink it all, Agnes,’ the blond-haired man said. ‘I brought it for you.’” It brought to mind the thought that whilst Agnes may have lacked, or felt she lacked love, there was always o possibility of kindness, though it is kindness, often, rather than anger or abusiveness, that brings us to our knees. And though Agnes’s fate was well known, I still found myself hoping that there was a way out for her, somehow. As did she, I suppose.
Hannah Kent is another example of the fantastic skill and storytelling-ability coming out of the antipodes right now along with Eleanor Catton’s excellent The Luminaries and Evie Wyld’s peerless All The Birds, Singing. It’s really caught my attention. They manage to combine excellent storytelling with beautiful, complex prose and an almost flawless delivery. All three of those writers have written engaging, powerful stories that simply lift the reader along. I will be watching out for more work from all three.