Rating: 4 stars
This is my second book from the Willoughby Book Club subscription I won earlier this year. It’s another good choice. I’ve had Burial Rites on my wishlist since it was published three years ago.
Before I even started reading, I loved the book. It’s a book to fetishise. I have the hardback edition, with its black tipped pages, its black book cloth, its deep purple end papers, and its raven feather illustrated book jacket. It says dark Icelandic nights. It says murder. It says misery.
The scene setting quote from the Laxdæla Saga before the prologue is delicious.
I was worst to the one I loved best.
The book is based on historical murders that happened in Iceland in 1828. The author includes letters written by officials involved in the case and court records to provide context and moves between third person observation of the key players in the story and first person testimony from the murderer Agnes Magnúsdóttir.
It was a strange book to read. I enjoyed it and wanted to read it quickly, but I found the intensity hard going at times. I had to have frequent rests from it. It was quite tiring. The reading equivalent of being stuck in a remote farmhouse in the wilds of Iceland in 1828, I suppose.
Some of the difficulty in getting into the book at first was perhaps because I was concentrating on getting the Icelandic pronunciations of places’ and people’s names right. I felt like an observer, detached from the characters. There was a fair bit of exposition in the first chapter, as well, which only scratched the surface of who the characters were as people.
From chapter two, though, I started to understand Agnes more, as her voice became clearer. Her descriptions of what it is to be watched and judged by her captors, and how it felt to leave her prison to start the journey to the Jónsson croft, Kornsá, were poetic.
They were silent, but I felt them behind me; I felt their stares as though they were cold handgrips upon my neck.
How can I say what it was like to breathe again? I felt newborn. I staggered in the light of the world and took deep gulps of fresh sea air. It was late in the day: the wet mouth of the afternoon was full on my face. My soul blossomed in that brief moment as they led me out of doors. I fell, my skirts in the mud, and I turned my face upwards as if in prayer. I could have wept from the relief of light.
Her arrival at Kornsá and her treatment at the hands of Margrét, the wife of District Officer Jón Jónsson, humanises her. Margrét takes her to the kitchen to wash but instead, maddened by thirst, Agnes gulps down the dirty dishwater set in front of her. The way the passage is written made me want to cry with pity for Agnes.
The story moves slowly. It made me think of the best Westerns. Narrative moving incrementally across a wide open landscape, drip feeding the reader with context and revelation. It must be something to do with an Australian writer describing an Icelandic crime. Australia and Iceland share the infinite horizon of Texas or Arizona.
More of Agnes’s testimony took my breath away.
Winter comes like a punch in the dark.
Is this happiness, this warmth in my chest? Like another’s hand placed there?
Agnes’s story is one of being prejudged, of growing up in a small, narrow community. Her parents weren’t married. Her mother abandoned her. By the time we know her, the convicted murderer, her character has been determined by her neighbours, without them knowing anything about her.
‘People claim to know you through the things you’ve done, and not by sitting down and listening to you speak for yourself. No matter how you try to live a godly life, if you make a mistake in this valley, it’s never forgotten. No matter if you tried to do what was best. No matter if your innermost self whispers, “I am not as you say!” – how other people think of you determines who you are.’
Agnes finds a different meaning to her life in loving the healer Natan Ketilsson, one of the men she is convicted of murdering. Their relationship begins as it always does with men who sense vulnerability that can be turned into availability, as friendship. When he is certain of her attachment, Natan beds Agnes. She is one more in a line, but to her it is more than that.
The famous Natan Ketilsson, a man who could bleed the sap of sickness from the limbs of the ill, who had been with the famous Poet-Rósa, who had heard the bells of Copenhagen, and taught himself Latin – an extraordinary man, a saga man – had chosen me. For the first time in my life, someone saw me, and I loved him because he made me feel I was enough.
Oh don’t we just love it when a man sees us and makes us feel significant? Poor Agnes. Of course there was another woman. Of course Natan turned out to be a self-serving bastard.
Agnes’s story is told in fragments, stitched around with everyday life in its hardship, its gossip and its low-key tenderness. Hannah Kent gives just enough of the characters to enable the reader’s understanding of their actions, but the main character we are supposed to care about is Agnes. It’s a sad story, and an accomplished work for a debut novel.