Burial Rites by Hannah Kent
Published: 2013, Little, Brown and Company
Genre: Adult Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction
Source: LibraryGoodreads · Amazon · Barnes & Noble
They will not be able to keep my words for themselves. They will see the whore, the madwoman, the murderess, the female dripping blood into the grass and laughing with her mouth choked with dirt. They will say “Agnes” and see the spider, the witch caught in the webbing of her own fateful weaving. They might see the lamb circled by ravens, bleating for a lost mother. But they will not see me. I will not be there.
Along with two other people, Agnes Magnúsdóttir finds herself sentenced to a public execution following the murder of two men. As rumors spread about Agnes’ life and actions, the people of Iceland lose any semblance of sympathy for her. Because the government officials need time to prepare for the execution, it is decided that Agnes will spend the last few months of her life sharing the home of a poor farming family.
No one is happy with this decision, least of all the family asked to house a murderess. Agnes spends her time helping out with farm chores and refusing to discuss her past with the young priest chosen to help her repent. It is only gradually that Agnes begins to open up and reveal the circumstances that have led her to this place.
The story’s trajectory is pretty clear from the beginning. Plenty of allusions to Agnes’ ultimate fate can be found on the cover jacket, other promotional materials, reviews, and history itself, so that really should not come as a surprise to readers. Burial Rites is not a story that should be read for the plot, however, but rather a book that should be read for the pure pleasure of reading. This is literary fiction at its finest.
The Agnes presented in Burial Rites is not necessarily true to life, but she offers readers a potential insight into the life of this woman. Kent’s Agnes is literate and intelligent, but also hardened by all the tribulations she’s had to endure. In her life, Agnes has worked at one farm after another in the hope of avoiding complete poverty. She had never allowed herself to become close to many other people and now Natan, the person she cared most for, is dead, supposedly at her own hands. Agnes’ first-person narration shows the desperate beauty of someone with little hope left. She is not quite a likable character, but she is a character with whom readers can empathize.
I tend to prefer my stories to feature only one narrative style, and the beginning of Burial Rites did little to alter my opinion. As the story continues, however, and its scope becomes clearer, I began to understand just why Kent chose to feature multiple narrators and documentation related to Agnes’ case. As I mentioned earlier, this is Agnes’ story. But not just hers. Kent’s story is narrated equally between Agnes’ point of view and a more omniscient third-person narration that focuses on the thoughts of those who come into contact with Agnes. The third-person narrative mostly cycles between Jón, a local district officer, his wife Margrét, their daughters Steina and Lauga, and the priest Tóti.
By choosing not to focus solely on Agnes, Kent is able to present a much fuller picture of the sentiments surrounding the murders supposedly enacted by Agnes and her two accomplices. Kent admits to taking some liberties in her story - primarily in her depiction of the characters, I would assume - but by making the story’s focus broader than on Agnes’ perspective, Kent is able to better display the impressive research she has done regarding this trial and time period. Also because of this, however, I do think that individual secondary characters are not distinguished to to the fullest degree; I just never had as clear an understanding of who they are and what they want.
The Icelandic setting provides the perfect atmosphere for this story. Like Agnes’ fate, the landscape is desolate, any spots of warm weather and bright light infrequent. By virtue of its cold and barren climate, the Icelandic people are virtually closed in during the winter. There’s almost a sense of claustrophobia as Agnes, the family that houses her, and the priest Tóti gradually lose control of their independence. It is only when they are all stuck together in the farmhouse during those long winter nights that Agnes really reveals what led to the deaths of Natan Ketilsson and Pétur Jónsson.
As much as the story centers around murder, it is also a quiet book full of subtleties. It is introspective, reflective, and layered, much like Agnes during her time at the farm. I took my time reading it, savoring the poetic language and teasing out larger meanings from Kent’s words. It’s a book that definitely works better if you take your time with it, and I can see myself appreciating it even more with further re-reads.
Burial Rites is unlike any book I’ve ever read. It’s not that its aspects are far out of the ordinary; dark, atmospheric settings, enigmatic protagonists, and evocative, lyrical prose are nothing new to literature. And yet, it is the way that Kent skillfully combines these elements together that makes Burial Rites such a memorable book.
Rating: 4.5 stars