Every now and then you read something lovely – Burial Rites is that kind of something.
NB: word on the grapevine is this book is being optioned for a movie starring Jennifer Lawrence . . .
Burial Rites is the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir. Beheaded in 1830 for her part in a double murder, she was the last woman to be executed in Iceland. The novel follows her final days as imagined by young Aussie author, Hannah Kent. Kent heard about Agnes whilst on a Rotary exchange in Iceland. She was so intrigued that she went on to write a novel, instead of bumbling around and watching TV like 90 per cent of university students.
What’s to like?
First and foremost – Kent’s achingly beautiful prose. It’s the sort of book that totally silences my pesky inner critic and enables me to fall deeply and effortlessly into the story. Basically it makes me green with envy happy.
The book opens as Agnes is moved from her cell to the farm of District Officer, Jón Jónsson, where she will wait to die. There, she works side by side with his family who reluctantly take her in, facing the forces of the merciless Icelandic landscape. Kent describes the novels as a ‘dark love letter to Iceland.’ Her Iceland is a stunning, frightening setting and a perfect compliment to to Agnes as a character – who struggles for survival in every sense. One of my favourite images is where a character recalls seeing two icebergs colliding at sea, setting some driftwood alight and causing a fire to burn for days out on the freezing water.
Kent’s treatment of the question of Agnes’ innocence/guilt was particularly impressive. Apparently, she is sort of demonized in Icelandic memory – particular as the two people charged with her were teenagers at the time of the murders. Kent resists the urge to turn Agnes into martyr. First and foremost, Agnes is depicted as an ordinary human being – not evil but not blameless. She’s a person who is swept away by forces beyond her control – poverty, a poisonous love affair and the law of land that does not see shades of grey. As readers we discover this through the eyes of her young spiritual counsellor, Tóti, who discovers she is more willing to talk than to listen.
Finally, Agnes’ attitude towards death is refreshingly relatable. She doesn’t march towards the executioner with her head held high and every hair in place. She has spent her whole life desperately clinging to life and although she begins to accept her fate, it still terrifies her. She’s not a religious person but she’s highly intelligent and educated – intriguingly literacy has been almost universal in Iceland since the late 1700s and even the poorest of the poor were taught to read and write. Although Agnes’ life is dramatically different from my experience as a contemporary middle-class Australian, she felt extremely relevant – maybe this is what attracted Kent to her story in the first place. The theme of death is treated in a thoughtful way and when we finally hear Agnes’s account of the murder, the scene is gut-wrenching rather cheap and shocking. Agnes finally faces her own end with the knowledge that this life is that that she has.
“You are not going home you are gone silence will claim you and suck your life down into its black waters and churn out stars that might remember you, but if they do they will not say . . . and if no one will say your name you are forgotten.”
I always know I’ve read something special when I’m left quiet and thoughtful after the final page. Burial Rites left me feeling desperately sad, yet immensely satisfied.