Hannah Kent’s novel is stunning, almost unfairly so given it’s her debut novel. ‘Burial Rites’ is the sophisticated, yet simple telling of Agnes Magnúsdóttir’s story. She was the last woman executed in Iceland. Unprepared for dealing with a murderess, the courts sent her to the remote family farm of Jón Jónsson, his wife Margret, and his two daughters Steina and Lauga. Her arrival upsets the household, but the hard work and isolation of farm life eventually breaks down the rigid boundaries between Agnes and the family. They learn there is another side to the sensational tale of Agnes, Fridrik (also executed), and Sigrídur (survived), but ultimately, given this is heavily researched historical fiction, it is not enough to change the outcome.
This brilliant novel had me at hello, to borrow from Cameron Crowe. It’s opens with this haunting quote:
I was worst to the one I loved best.
It’s such a simple, beautiful, accurate notion. Loving someone is always a challenge, in the best possible way. But sometimes, it can be in the worst possible way as well. Given the resolution of this novel, I’ll let you draw your own conclusion as to Agnes’ experience. Although I fell in love with the opening quote, I was completely smitten when I read the following line:
I so often feel that I am barely here, that to feel weight is to be reminded of my own existence.
Her depiction of the land and the characters, particularly Agnes and Margret, is brilliant and engaging. Both the landscape and the women initially seem harsh and unyielding, but time and careful study reveal a depth and breadth that is beautiful – as neither is entirely what it seems. Between the main characters, Agnes’ story is the most powerful. There is something incredibly intimate, even when fictional, to having unfiltered access to the thoughts, feelings, and memories of someone who is condemned to die.
I knew only the valley of Vatnsdalur; knew where it was scabbed with rock, knew the white-headed mountains and the lake alive with swans, and the wrinkled skins of turf by the river. And the ravens, the constant, circling ravens. But Illugastadir was different. I had no friends. I didn’t understand the landscape. Only the outlying tongues of rock scarred the perfect kiss of sea and sky – there was no one and nothing else. There was nowhere else to go.
I could and would say more, but I will leave you with this: just read it. It’s impressive, not just because it is a debut novel that seasoned authors wish they could produce, but because it manages to balance darkness and light as carefully as it balances life and death. ‘Burial Rites’* a beautifully crafted piece of literature that will undoubtedly be one of the best novels I read this year. 5/5.
There are lots of food references, I found the most interesting to be skyr. Kate did as well, if you’re interested in it (or in her opinion of the book), go here. Instead, I will tell you that nealry one year ago I was here:
*I received a copy of this novel in exchange for my honest opinion.