I’ve just finished reading Burial Rites by Hannah Kent and it’s easy to see what all the hype has been about. Kent’s beautifully written, empathetic novel of the last woman executed in Iceland in 1830 is an enviable telling. Based on the true story of convicted murderess Agnes Magnúsdóttir, it re-imagines the last six months of Agnes’s life, housed with an official’s reluctant host family, awaiting her execution.
The early manuscript won the inaugural Writing Australia Unpublished Manuscript Award; the prize included a mentorship with Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Geraldine Brooks (March, Year of Wonders, Caleb’s Crossing). A bidding war followed the book’s completion and secured an international two-book deal for Kent worth more than $1 million. (More writer reasons to envy!)
Kent first heard Magnúsdóttir’s story as a 17-year-old Australian exchange student to Iceland. The initial six-months of her stay were extremely lonely and isolating in a semi-dark, freezing, small community, without a common language, and it is easy to imagine how she would’ve connected with and become haunted by Magnúsdóttir’s story.
Kent’s powerful rendering of weather in the novel had this reader shivering and imagining herself huddled inside the icy Jónsson badstofa along with the family. The seasonal shearing, slaughter and harvest beautifully dramatised the rhythm of the changing seasons and passing of time, creating a palpable tension that it was not the animals alone running out of time.
Autumn has been pushed aside by a wind driving flurries of snow up against the croft, and the air as thin as paper.
Magnúsdóttir’s specific part in the murder was not revealed in the trial accounts or records, leading Kent to re-imagine Agnes’s part in the crime. Kent has said that where research couldn’t uncover certain facts or sources were contradictory, she had to work out what would be the most logical, or likely situation and in doing so she had to walk an “ethical tightrope”.
The portrayal of Agnes’s part in the crime was the one aspect of the novel that troubled this reader. Without giving away any spoilers, my initial response jolted me out of the narrative. However, upon consideration, it was probably the one explanation that could have worked plausibly for the Agnes character Kent created.
There could be no happy ending to what is an undeniably grim tale with a pre-determined fact based conclusion, still I found Kent’s quiet and sympathetic rendering of the ending emotionally satisfying despite the harsh finality.
It was somehow reassuring for me to read too, while researching this post, that Kent’s mentor, Geraldine Brooks, encouraged her to ‘let a bit more light in’, particularly to what Kent says was originally an even grimmer ending, since I tend to lock out the light a bit in my own novels.
Most of us can only dream of the type of success that greeted Kent’s first novel. But, according to interviews, Kent too suffered self-doubt during the writing. She really set out to gain a qualification and didn’t think the novel good enough to be published. She entered a competition and there you go… A fantastic result and book, Hannah Kent, and a wonderful inspiration to all emerging writers coming along the path behind.
Burial Rites Hannah Kent
WINNER OF THE FAW CHRISTINA STEAD AWARD 2013
WINNER OF THE 2014 INDIE AWARDS DEBUT FICTION OF THE YEAR
WINNER OF THE VICTORIAN PREMIER’S LITERARY AWARD PEOPLE’S CHOICE AWARD 2014