Burial Rites by Hannah Kent
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Time to enthuse: this is one of the most striking first novels I’ve read in a long time. It’d sat on my shelf for a while, and I grabbed it as I hustled for a bus, so I approached it with no real expectations. So to end up reading something that came across as a more astringent cross between Atwood’s Alias Grace and the austere bones of Miller’s The Crucible was a surprise, to say the least.
Kent’s book is rooted in history and tells of the final weeks of Agnes Magnusdottir’s life. It’s the story of the last woman executed in Iceland, roped to death by the actions of others, with her own role left fairly unexamined. It’s a true story, more or less – there’s liberties been taken with conversations and some names – but the weight of truth is on the thing. Officious jobsworths and obfuscatory paperwork have the ring of bureaucratic veracity, while the grindingly bleak nature of life on the snowbound land is recreated well, albeit with a lot more affection for dung than you’d think you could muster. The 1800s in rural Iceland were, unsurprisingly, grim.
(Check this link for some of the author’s photographs of how harsh the surrounds could be.)
While the story is about Agnes’s procession towards death, interactions with the living are the key concern. Agnes is brought to stay with a family until she is to be executed, and the unfolding nature of her relationship with her supervising family – most notably Margret, and her two daughters Lauga and Sigrid. It’s cold, initially, but proximity weakens the her-and-us divide, and the changing motivations of the four women are engrossing. There’s an element of the confessional, particularly between Margret and Agnes – something which the spiritual advisor appointed the condemned is seemingly unable to provide.
What’s remarkably conveyed here is the juxtaposition of unreality and the routine. Agnes is in an almost untouchable space: she is the walking dead, the reviled, and yet her surrounds are grindingly mundane. She is put to work, and her thoughts come as if from inside an echo chamber: there’s the sense of a woman observing from deep inside herself, pushed inwards by innate self-preservation in the face of death. Indeed, the passages where the execution is at hand are some of the most pathetic and touching in the book, where the fending off of the ultimate moment takes on an almost childlike desperation.
At heart, this book is about being heard. Not heard in the sense of what’s expedient for the judiciary, or what’s beneficial for conspirators, but to just be heard, with no judgement on why or how. To be seen for what one is, not for what one is known for. To be known for deeds and not rumours. Through this work, Agnes Magnusdottir echoes through two centuries, straight to the heart of the bummed-out reader.