Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

To know what a person has done, and to know who a person is, are very different things.

Iceland’s last public execution took place in 1829 when a man and a woman were beheaded for a murder that took place on a remote farm. The woman was detained on a farm over winter whilst she awaited her execution as there were no jails. Hannah Kent’s meticulously researched award winning novel, Burial Rites, imagines that woman story.

She made mistakes and others made up their minds about her. People around here don’t let you forget your misdeeds. They think them the only things worth writing down.

The harsh Icelandic setting of the novel amplifies the brutal reality of class and peasant life of the time. Whilst interned on the farm of Margret, Jon and their two daughters, with a year to live, Agnes reflects on her life leading up to the murder. Her presence creates tensions in the family obliged to keep her, and suspicion in the local rural community. Priest in training, Reverend Tóti, there to help Agnes come to terms with her fate is the device that helps unravel Agnes’s story, maintain peace in the family and develop their relationship with the condemned woman.

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.

Kent has conjured up a voice from the margins in Agnes, a whip smart, dirt poor peasant girl – a combination that set her up for trouble in the times when intelligent outspoken women were cause for grave concern. It was these qualities that drew the attention of freethinker Naan Ketilsson whom she was subsequently accused of murdering. She is only a whisper away from being called a witch.

They see I’ve got a head on my shoulders, and believe a thinking woman cannot be trusted.

The language and voice in the book are striking and amplify the gothic feel of the story through its analogies and painterly descriptors. Burial rites is gothic romance with the feel of an Icelandic saga that deals with ordinary people living in extreme conditions. A remarkable, dark debut novel by Hannah Kent who went on to write The Good People and Devotion.

“He lay back down on the snow. “What’s the name for the space between stars?” “No such name.” “Make one up.” I thought about it. “The soul asylum.”

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