' They said I must die. They said that I stole the breath from men, and now they must steal mine. '
Thus begins Burial Rites, the winner of 2011's Writing Australia Unpublished Manuscript Award.
In the year 1829, something unimaginably horrifying happens in northern Iceland. Agnes Magnusdottir, a servant sentenced to death for her part in the cold-blooded murder of two men, one of whom was her former employer and lover, awaits her execution in prison. Publicly condemned and portrayed as the monstrous minx who murders men, Agnes is abhorred and ostracized by society completely. She is then sent to district officer Jon Jonsson and his family's farm to be kept there until the execution day. At first, the family is immensely startled and abound with indignation to be forced to handle a murderess in their household. Only Toti, a young assistant reverend appointed as Agnes' spiritual guardian is impelled by his own curiosity and sense of duty to understand her.
Agnes, although initially shunned by the family, is later found not to be the unequivocally evil and diabolical wretch everyone believes her to be.
Days hurtle by like ribbons in the wind and Agnes' side of the story is slowly unraveled. The execution day nears ominously while the question of most significance blazes through the pages, did she or didn't she?
This well-researched book though fictitious has its foundation based on true events. Hannah Kent triumphantly succeeds in exquisitely depicting an ill-famed, extensively documented and mythologized event that happened nearly 200 years ago in Iceland, a country foreign to her, with rich lyricism and a bewitching style. Throughout the book, Kent uses several characters as narrators and frequently delivers morsels of historical information as epigraphs that limn the story's original facts.
I found the constant switching of narrators very innovative and rather audacious. As the reader, I could slip into the characters' shoes and view what was happening in their perspectives which was exciting and totally enthralling.
The plot neatly and fascinatingly unfolds without there being any dull moments, repetition or confusion because of the disjoined narratives.
But at the same time, the continuously shifting point of view in many ways tapers the reader's commitment to Agnes which, I think, is a pity since she is the central character with the most gripping and compelling voice.
Kent's allurement towards Agnes' dark tale is understandable and it's obvious why she was haunted by it. Her rich, poetic descriptions of the Icelandic landscape and its long, bleak seasons paint strong pictures and charm enchanting spells on the reader, making it almost impossible to stop reading the novel. The rhythmic farm works such as shearing, slaughter, milking, lambing and cattle rearing become the novel's steady pulse; it's pleasantly surprising to look up from the novel and realize you haven't been there yourself.
Burial Rites is also a uniquely written book in regard to how it voices the injustice done to women in past times. The novel explores how women have been unable to author their own public identity unlike men. Women who strayed from the social norm or just didn't fit into the accepted were seen as suspicious and assumed to be simply bad. Kent herself adds her opinion on this matter at the back of the book where she states the dichotomy of ' if you're not an angel, then you must be a demon ' as cruel and unfair.
While Agnes is portrayed to be somewhat of a strong, feminist heroine, one can't fully affirm that Burial Rites is a feminist story. Rather than being feministic, Burial Rites is an ambiguous and humanized portrayal of one woman's struggle when her life depends on the stories told by others.
I think in some ways, Burial Rites reminded me of Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace when I read it.
Lastly, I'd like to add that I found Burial Rites to be beautifully dark and an unputdownable novel which transported me to the unflinchingly boreal terrains of Iceland with its meticulous prose and wistful imagery. It's a book worth reading without a doubt.
Every sentence is a sight to be seen and every word a delight to be tasted and relished in this dear book.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.