Book Review: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

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This is the third book in almost as many weeks that I’ve read where the most interesting part of the story has already occurred and the reader is being told about it in retrospect (the other two being Amnesia by Peter Carey and Sisters of Mercy by Caroline Overington). Coincidentally, all three of these books are by Australian writers although I’m not sure there’s any real correlation because all three of these books were being written at about the same time and I doubt there was any corroboration going on.

Burial Rites won the inaugural Writing Australia Unpublished Manuscript Award and was nominated for several other writing prizes. Assuming these prizes were judged on writing and style alone (and leaving aside any considerations of plot or character), I can understand why. This novel has been written with confidence and the considerable historical research undertaken by the author has no doubt played a large part in this.

Based on real events, it’s the story of Agnes Magnusdottir, who has been condemned to death for her part in the murders of two men in Iceland and is awaiting confirmation of the sentence by the Supreme Court and the King. In the interim, she has been sent to live with the Jonsson family and to act as their servant. And she has requested the services of Assistant Reverend Toti to guide her in her spiritual salvation. Toti is supposed to lecture and berate her on her wrongdoings then lead her in prayer in the hopes that she will be suitably admonished and return to God in her final months.

Instead, Agnes tells him the story of her life. It’s a harsh tale, the oldest of three illegitimate children (to three different fathers) and abandoned by her mother, coincidentally at the farm she is now spending her final days on (it has since changed hands). After her foster mother dies, her foster father kicks her out and she spends the rest of her time working as a servant at a variety of Icelandic farms. Until she meets Natan. She falls in love with him and he asks her to come live with him on his farm and be his housekeeper.

But when she gets there, there’s already a younger, prettier woman installed as housekeeper and Agnes is expected to act as her maid. But she’s in love and determined to make the most of it. So how does she end up accused of murder and her lover dead?

I wish I could say it’s a grand sweeping saga of love and betrayal but it’s hardly original, a woman poorly treated by the world in general because of her status and by someone she loves because he can. All the characters in this story are unattractive. Maybe it’s the harshness of the setting, Iceland in the winter when not much more than huddling by a fire and trying not to die can be accomplished. Maybe it’s the time period, 1829, with no running water and a real lack of attention to hygiene that kept making me want to take a shower (there seemed to be a lot of peeing of pants and a strange focus on urine and faeces – what is it about “literature” that the authors have to describe it in such detail?). Maybe it’s the characterisation itself. But I couldn’t locate a single person I felt genuine empathy for.

Because it’s a fictionalised account of a real historical event, there are a number of letters and documents included from the time of the court case up until the executions. (Don’t worry, I’m not giving anything away – Agnes Magnusdottir was quite famously the last woman executed in Iceland.) There is a genuine air of authenticity and realism and while Hannah Kent appears to have been enthralled by the story during the time she spent in Iceland, she has failed to translate that enthusiasm into something that enthralled me. There are plenty of historical stories just like it, women accused of the murder of men they were romantically involved with, convicted and executed despite concerns then and later about whether they were actually guilty.

There is also something very strange about the characterisation of the two sisters of the family Agnes is staying with. In the opening chapters, Lauga is portrayed as the sensible, considerate one and Steina as the air-headed, selfish one. But almost immediately, their roles are reversed, so much so that I wondered if the author had gotten their names mixed up after that.

But as a piece of writing, Burial Rites is an accomplishment. I’ll be interested to read Hannah Kent’s next book. If she can take it to the next level with characters and plot, she’ll certainly be a writer to watch in the future.

3 stars

*First published on Goodreads 30 October 2015

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