I have had a bit of luck with first time authors of late, and Hannah Kent is no exception. Her debut work, Burial Rites, is a gripping novel- all mood and emotion. It’s a story gaining speed like a stone rolling downhill, for there is only one way to go.
Ms. Kent writes in Burial Rites about the last instance of capital punishment in Iceland. Its 1829, moving quickly into 1830, and everyone is waiting for word from Denmark allowing the beheading of Agnes Magnusdottir for her role in the murder of two men, one of whom was her employer. This is not a spoiler, as the entire book is built around Agnes’ death sentence, and her life between her trial and her execution. But I don’t really want to talk about plot in this review; I want to talk about language and intent.
In her Acknowledgements Ms. Kent describes this work as her “dark love letter to Iceland”. She became acquainted with the story of Agnes Magnusdottir on a Rotary exchange trip to Iceland from her home in Australia, and researched the murders at Illugastadir to a magnificent depth, mining archival sources and academic writings to deliver a story based on the historical record. In fact, each chapter of Burial Rites begins with a primary source related to Agnes’ case, in a similar way to how Lyndsay Faye begins each of her Timothy Wilde books. What the reader receives is a story that is based in fact and embellished with fictional likelihoods which delivers, as Ms. Kent intends, a more ambiguous portrayal of Agnes and the people who interacted with her in the last few months of her life. The reader also discovers what life in northern Iceland was like nearly two hundred years ago through Ms. Kent’s evocative use of language.
The language is the star of the show in Burial Rites. While one of my very few complaints about the book is that sometimes the characters’ voices blended together Ms. Kent’s word choice and craftsmanship are simply stunning. The bleak landscape, the harsh weather are felt in each sparse and multifaceted sentence. “Up in the highlands blizzards howl like the widows of fishermen and the wind blisters the skin off your face. Winter comes like a punch in the dark. The uninhabited places are as cruel as any executioner.” But it isn’t just Iceland that we come to know through Ms. Kent’s language, it’s her characters. And none so intimately as Agnes. Through her conversation with her young priest Toti and the farmer’s wife Margret, Agnes’ life and crimes are seen in the light. But Agnes is no ordinary woman of her class, she found herself in learning and is therefore a well-spoken and well-read reporter of her life. She is also highly aware of her future, and what now lies ahead of her, and her voice is the clearest, and the most haunting. In reflecting on what good Toti may be able to do for her, Agnes has this to say, “though prayer could simply pluck sin out. But any woman knows that a thread, once woven, is fixed in place; the only way to smooth a mistake is to let it all unravel.”
It is hard to believe that Ms. Kent is only 28 and this is her first novel. I am excited to see what else this author might bring to us moving forward.
“To know what a person has done, and to know who a person is, are very different things.”
This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.