“They said I must die. They said that I stole the breath from men, and now they must steal mine.”
And so begins Hannah Kent’s extraordinarily beautiful story, Burial Rites.
Based on true events, Burial Rites is set in northern Iceland in 1829 and tells the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, a woman condemned to death for her part in the brutal murder of two men. Agnes is sent to wait out the months leading up to her execution (by be-heading) on the farm of district officer Jón Jónsson, his wife and their two daughters.
“I could flee to the heath. Show them that they cannot keep me locked up, that I am a thief of time and will steal the hours denied to me!…. I would only be trading one death sentence for another. Up in the highlands blizzards howl like 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.”
Initially, the family avoid contact with Agnes. Only Tóti, the young assistant priest appointed her spiritual guardian, will listen to Agnes, her history and her account of events leading to the murder. Yet as the year progresses and winter approaches, the hardships of rural life force everyone to share the work, the roof and meals and gradually the family’s attitude to Agnes begins to change, culminating on the day of her execution.
I do not have the words nor the skill to do justice to this incredible book however I can share what I loved most about Burial Rites.
First and foremost, the language. As a debut, this book is astonishingly accomplished. I found myself reading passages over and over again, savouring the words, immersing myself in the descriptions of the Icelandic landscape. Every single word is beautifully crafted, painting a vivid and delicate portrait of a place that is in fact formidable and incredibly harsh.
“Now we are riding across Iceland’s north, across this island washing in its waters, sulking in its oceans. Chasing our shadows across the mountains.”
“The gentle beams of afternoon light were warm on their faces as they moved towards the stream. There was no wind, and the valley was so still that the two women began to walk more slowly to keep with the pause in the air.”
“Autumn fell upon the valley like a gasp…”
Yes, some may consider it easy pickings to describe landscape and weather but if you’re in any doubt of Kent’s skill, the carefully woven thread of despair, isolation and grief throughout the narrative proves that you are in the hands of an exceptional storyteller.
“As the horses struggle through the tussocks, I wonder when they will kill me. I wonder where they will store me, cellar me like butter, like smoked meat. Like a corpse, waiting for the ground to unfreeze before they can pocket me in the earth like a stone.”
“And I sit on the floor, my legs buckled with the pure, ripe grief of an orphan, and the wind cries for me because my tongue cannot. It screams and screams and I sit on the packed earth floor, hard with cold, and smell the fish-heads, sickening, lacing the bland scent of winter with its stench of salt and dried bone.”
A story pieced together from historical records tells little of the personalities involved. Kent could have demanded readers’ sympathy for Agnes from the outset and yet she doesn’t. Instead, she creates the possibility that the historical facts recording events misrepresent the life of Agnes.
My feelings for Agnes grew gradually, primarily through the shifting opinion of Margrét, wife of Jón Jónsson. In some ways Margrét is given a stereotypical role – she begins as judgemental and fixed in her ways. Agnes is not a young woman (by standards of the day) and had circumstances been different, might have been a wife and mother herself. As snatches of Agnes’s history as an orphan are revealed, Margrét becomes more sympathetic. Agnes’s story is doled out as winter approaches and as the weather becomes bleak and unforgiving, you can’t help but warm to Agnes.
The jacket blurb tells most of the story – there are no plot twists and from the very beginning you know the fate of Agnes. And yet, I became heavily and emotionally invested in this story of a murderess. Toward the end, Agnes says –
“I bit down on the flesh of my hand as a gauze of nausea wrapped about my stomach. My heart stopped. I choked on its missed beats.”
and I found myself feeling the same. I finished this book in tears.
I urge you to also read the story behind the novel, featured on Australian Story.
5/5 Burial Rites is without question the best book I’ve read this year.
There are plenty of references to food in Burial Rites, including salted meats, freshly churned butter, dried fish and blood sausage. I was most interested in skyr, a traditional cultured dairy food somewhat like strained yogurt. It’s traditionally served with cream and sugar.