Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites

Jun 19, 2013

Adelaide author Hannah Kent’s debut novel has caused quite a stir, with readers and media outlets alike captivated not just by the story but also by Kent’s account of how the seed for the idea was planted while she was a lonely teenage exchange student in Iceland.

While there, she visited a place called Vatnsdalshólar and heard about Agnes Magnusdottir, a servant who was beheaded in 1830 for her role in the murder of two men.

The tragic case piqued the interest of the teenager and, years later, she later decided to write an historical novel inspired by Agnes’s story for her PhD, spending six weeks back in Iceland researching her subject before putting pen to paper and using her imagination to flesh out the scant facts available.

The result is an utterly compelling story, despite – or perhaps because of – its bleak themes and stoic characters. Beautifully depicted, the harsh Icelandic landscape creates a chilling backdrop for the unfolding tale, while Kent’s gothic-style narrative enhances the mood and tension.

From the preface, in which Agnes ponders her fate, this reader was hooked:

“They said I must die. They said that I stole the breath from men, and now they must steal mine. I imagine, then, that we are all candle flames, greasy-bright, fluttering in the darkness and the howl of the wind, and in the stillness of the room I hear footsteps, awful coming footsteps, coming to blow me out and send my life up away from me in a grey wreath of smoke.”

Agnes has been convicted, with two others, of the brutal murder of Natan Ketilsson, on whose isolated coastal farm she lived and worked, and another man named Petur Jonsson. She is to await her execution not in a jail cell, but on the farm of government official Jon Jonsson, his wife Margret and their two young adult daughters Lauga and Steina. Reluctantly obeying orders to take her in, the family is both afraid and horrified to have a convicted murderess in their midst, and it is only the regular visits of a young assistant reverend, Toti, that initially offer Agnes any solace.

It is through her conversations with Toti that we learn Agnes’s wretched life story and how a desperate desire for a happier existence – and, inevitably, for love – led to her downfall.

Letters and extracts from official documents relating to Agnes’s conviction have been translated and adapted, and feature at the start of each chapter. Their cold, emotionless tone offers a stark counterpoint to the descriptive prose of the novel, in which confidences shared around a fire during the cruellest months of a stormy winter find the reader warming towards the outwardly fatalistic Agnes.

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There is also, however, an ever-growing sense of unease as the inevitable question hovers: is Agnes really guilty of the murders?

It is little wonder Burial Rites won the Writing Australia Unpublished Manuscript award and is reported to have sparked a bidding war between publishers eager to get their hands on the book – it’s an extremely impressive debut from the young author and co-founder of literary magazine Kill Your Darlings, and well deserving of the praise it has received.

A cover quote by Pulitzer Prize-winning Australian author Geraldine Brooks, Kent’s mentor, describes it as “an accomplished gem, its prose as crisp and sparkling as its northern setting” – and if you’re a fan of historical novels like Brooks’ own (March, People of the Book, Year of Wonders, Caleb’s Crossing), you’ll almost certainly enjoy Burial Rites.

In an article for The Guardian, Kent said she felt profoundly sad when she finally completed the first draft of her novel; “it felt like breaking up with someone I still had feelings for”. I felt something similar when I finished the novel, which held me in thrall from beginning to end.

Burial Rites, by Hannah Kent, is published by Pan Macmillan Australia, $32.99.

Hannah Kent will be a guest at Adelaide Writers’ Week, speaking at two sessions on March 3.

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