Sunday, 5 November 2017

Burial Rites

I've been meaning to read Burial Rites since it came out in 2013. It was huge, everyone was reading it, everyone was saying how amazing it was. I listened to the buzz, but didn't get to reading the book.  I asked for a copy of Burial Rites that Christmas and that copy been sitting in my bedside stack ever since. Debut author Hannah Kent even had an episode of Australian Story which I watched and was even more fascinated. (I just rewatched it via the magic of Youtube). Recently I had the opportunity to see Hannah Kent speak at the Melbourne Writers Festival 2017 and that finally spurred me on to read it. Actually I was trying to fit in other festival reads so I borrowed the audiobook from my library and popped it on in the car.

Oh, I'm so, so glad that I did. I absolutely loved it. Burial Rites is perhaps an unusual tale from a debut Australian author, and a young one at that. Set in Iceland in the 1820s it tells the rather sad, and oft times completely harrowing tale of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last woman executed in Iceland.

Agnes was a poor servant, in the cold, desolate north of Iceland. She lived and worked on the remote farms of the area. She is charged with murder and arson along with two others for her role in the deaths of her boss, farmer Natan Ketilsson and a guest on the farm, Pétur Jónsson.

Hannah Kent has done an amazing job telling this story. She uses an interesting structure to great effect. Much of the storytelling is in third person, with smaller sections first person in Agnes' voice, 

Those first person segments are particularly poignant and compelling. Interwoven are historical documents and letters regarding Agnes and the events at Ilugastadir.

The writing is ethereal and atmospheric. Hannah Kent invokes the sparse, barren landscape of northern Iceland. It is lyrical, it is moving. I sat listening to Chapter 6 as I arrived at the work car park, mesmerised as Agnes described a particular defining moment in her childhood. I think I held my breath. The audiobook is beautifully read, and helps with the difficult Icelandic names (well to an Australian mind at least) roll ever so easily off the tongue, where I feel I would have stumbled over them reading the actual book. 

Burial Rites makes you consider the clustered, hard lives of the people living in remote Iceland at the time. Such a harsh, difficult, inhospitable place to live. So hard just to survive there. Hannah Kent does an amazing job of making you feel like you're right there in the cramped badstofa (a combined living/sleeping area where all the people of the farm lived, masters and servants alike). Hannah makes us realise what a stifling existence their lives were, with no privacy possible.

The other thing that I thought about a lot while I was listening to Burial Rites was the history of "justice" over time. We get things wrong even now with all of our forensics and technology, how many centuries of injustice have been handed out by superstitious folks?

Burial Rites is deservedly already being studied in schools. 
It's so fantastic. See Hannah's FAQ.  If like me you are one of the few people left who hadn't read it then rush to your bookshop or library right now and get a copy. At first I wasn't sold on the premise of Hannah's second book, The Good People, also set in the 1820s but in Ireland this time- the story of three women and a child with some magical elements I believe, generally not an appealing type of story to me, but I'm so in love with Burial Rites that I'm now intrigued and will trust Hannah to tell another amazing tale with her breathtaking prose.

In Iceland in September there was a retrial of Agnes and her Fridrik Sigurdsson, news reports say that Iceland was "riveted". Although it seems that the murders of Natan and Pétur and the subsequent executions of Agnes and Fridrik are not forgotten in Iceland I do wonder if the retrial would have garnered such interest without such a sympathetic portrayal of Agnes in Burial Rites.

I was surprised to read in the Author's Note at the end of Burial Rites that Hannah says that she wrote the book to write a "more ambiguous portrayal" of Agnes. Which I was confused about initially, but most of the portrayals of Agnes have apparently conveyed her as an evil figure and she has repeatedly said that she wanted to create an empathetic, rather than a sympathetic portrayal of Agnes. I thought the book did give a rather sympathetic  view of Agnes, not in a sentimental way, just that Agnes was trapped by the circumstances of her birth, her personal history, her gender and status as a servant. 

We live in such a magical age wherein we can so easily see some of Hannah Kent's own photos of Iceland, the site of the murders, the site of Agnes's execution. There is lots of content online.

I will treasure my now autographed copy of Burial Rites, and will hope to reread it sometime.


Susan said...

I read this a while ago and was also impressed. Incredible writer!

Paulita said...

Wow. You make this sound worth reading. I'll put it on my list.

Brona Joy said...

I (hang my head in shame) have never read this book. It had soooooo much hype at the time, & 2 of my colleagues at the time, read it & loved it, so I chose to read something different to provide more variety in our staff favourites section! And now it feels like I've muss d the boat on it.

But your review was do enthusiastic & compelling, I may have to reconsider!

residentjudge said...

I'm glad that you have finally read it, and that you enjoyed it so much. Her second book is excellent to (The Good People)