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Burial Rites by Hannah Kent was shortlisted for the 2013 Guardian First Book Award and is ranked number 1 on iTunes. Kent was born in 1985 and this is an outstandingly accomplished first novel for an author so young. The novel follows the final days of a convicted murderess Agnes Magnusdottir, who was the last person to be executed in Iceland for murder. During the novel the reader glimpses the grinding difficulties of life in Iceland in the late 1820’s. I really enjoyed the skilled descriptions that show how much research Kent did to write this novel, including harvesting hay, ‘swinging a lamb’ and making black pudding. Inevitably I thought of the passages on agricultural reform in Anna Karenina but Kent’s descriptions are much easier to read! The other book that I repeatedly thought of was Tess of the D’Urbervilles which I just re-read for my book group. Both Tess and Agnes are executed, both are servants at the mercy of their ‘masters’ (including sexual mercy), both work exceptionally hard and in grinding poverty and in bleak settings of cold and lack of hope.
Agnes is sent to live with a family on their farm and predictably the father Jon, mother Margret and daughters Lauga and Steina are terrified of Agnes and hostile towards her. Soon Agnes becomes an indispensible workmaid around the ‘croft’ and farm and during the summer she works hard for the harvest so that by the time that autumn brings the first snows Agnes is a bit better accepted which makes the cramp living conditions in the tuft ‘croft‘ more tolerable. The croft had timber cladding until the year before but hard times have visited the family and the cladding has been removed, exposing the turf and allowing tufts of it to fall into the room. I cannot even begin to imagine how cold it must be in there during the winter with only a dried sheep’s bladder as a window. When the District Commissioner visits the croft we read:
The hovels of the peasants and farmers had begun to repel him, with their cramped rooms constructed of turf that issued clouds of dust in the summer, irritating his lungs.
During the winter day and night are spent by everyone, family and servants included, in the ‘badstofa‘. It must have been exceptionally cramped and difficult to stop tempers from fraying. Kent does a good job of portraying the isolation, loneliness and desperation of the rural residents of Iceland at that time. It’s documented that particulate matter in the air, particularly in the home, can lead to respiratory and eye health problems and considering how dusty and smoky the croft is it doesn’t surprise me that Margret is seriously ill with a respiratory problem (perhaps TB).
In the Author’s Note, at the back of the novel, Kent explains that she wrote the novel to give a more ambiguous portrayal of convicted murderess Agnes, who has been described by other authors as ‘an inhuman witch, stirring up murder’. The reader knows that Agnes does not wish to confide in anyone:
I will hold what I am inside, and keep my hands tight around all the things I have seen and heard, and felt.
So, when she does confide the reader is left with a lingering doubt about the veracity of the narrative, especially considering that we are treated to Agnes’s internal monologues and translations of official documents from the time, all of which give differing impressions. I hadn’t heard of the book until a friend recommended it to me and finally after 2 months of waiting for a copy to become available at the library I received the book 4 days ago. I raced to finish reading the book today on my bus ride home from work, the last day before my Christmas holidays so that I could return it to the library, and the final chapter left me bereft and furtively trying to wipe away the tears while hoping that the business-man sitting next to me didn’t notice. In summary, I was fascinated by the historical aspects of the novel but at times I found my mind wandering while reading, something that rarely happens except when there is something wrong with the prose. I can’t quite express what I thought was lacking in the novel but I just know that I was left wanting more than it offered. One character who didn’t seem fully formed to me was the assistant reverend Toti who was assigned as Agnes’s spiritual guide in her final days but was weak of character and became besotted with Agnes even though his infatuation with her just added an unnecessary layer to the story and was unrequited. Having said all of that I recommend that you read the book!
Considering the exceptionally high literacy rates in Iceland even in the 1820’s and as an advocate of literacy and a volunteer for Room to Read I will finish with this Icelandic saying:
Blind is a man without a book