Burial Rites by Hannah Kent
Picador (August 2013)
378 pages, hardback
Bought by me, from Amazon
I savoured the thought of reading Hannah Kent’s debut novel for almost six months. I pre-ordered it, and then hoarded it, like I do with books I hope I’m going to relish. It ticked lots of boxes for me: historical fiction; female protagonist; set in a cold climate; dark murderous plot. The book itself was beautiful, with its stark and striking cover and black edged pages. It sat patiently on my TBR, always hovering near the top, while the accolades came rolling in: it was chosen for the Waterstones 11, shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award and then longlisted (now shortlisted) for the Baileys Prize. I finally picked it up a few weeks ago, when I wanted something intense and unflinching.
The story is compact and breathtakingly simple: it is 1829 and Agnes Magnusdottir has been condemned to death for her part in the murder of her master and lover, Natan Ketilsson, on a remote coastal farm in northern Iceland. As there are no prisons on the island she is sent to stay on another farmstead, Kornsa, with Jon Jonsson, his sick wife Margret and their two daughters Steina and Lauga. She will live, eat and work alongside them, waiting through a summer and winter for the bureaucratic machine to set the date and place of her execution. The family are horrified to have a convicted murderer under their roof with no guard to protect them. Is the woman mad? Dangerous? Devilish? Agnes is also horrified: Kornsa was her childhood home, in a region where she is known to many people who remember her as she was before.
All the state provides in support of prisoner and host family is a spiritual advisor, whose job is to bring Agnes to repent of her crime. The choice of confessor is hers and on a hopeful whim she chooses the young impressionable Reverend Toti. She remembers that he once helped her to cross a stream in flood and hopes that he will be kindly. As the months pass by and summer turns to winter Agnes begins to unburden her soul, to tell Toti and the Jonsson family her life story and the truth of what happened to Natan Ketilsson.
The novel unfolds in three interwoven strands. The first and most striking belongs to Agnes herself, a forceful lyrical first-person narration that addresses the reader directly. It strikes out at you from the first page, in a Prologue that sets the novel’s portentous, sonorous tone:
They said I must die. They said that I stole the breath from men, and now they must steal mine. I imagine, then, that we are all candle flames, greasy-bright, fluttering in the darkness and the howl of the wind, and in the stillness of the room I hear footsteps, awful coming footsteps, coming to blow me out and send my life up away from me in a wreath of smoke.
The second is an omniscient third person that skips and jumps point of view from Toti, Margret, Steina, Lauga and others. This is lyrical too, though less self-conscious in tone. The third is a smattering of original archival sources, taken from the records of the real-life case on which the novel is based and translated by Kent as part of her impeccable research. They are the official, cutting counterpoint to the poignant and poetic revisioning that Kent sets out to tell. They are also a provocation to the reader, positioned to play on our sympathies. Confronted with the coldness of the state – the bill for the axe; the wrangling over an execution site – we sway towards Agnes and want to believe the best of her.
You won’t be surprised to hear that Agnes is the most striking and compelling thing about Burial Rites. In the Author's Note Kent admits that she was motivated to write the book specifically to rehabilitate and humanise her, to reapproach her like a feminist historian. How did this older single woman – 34 years old when the crime was committed – who was clever and literate but destitute and without family come to kill a man? As Agnes tells her life story to Toti we, like the listening Jonsson family, begin to re-evaluate her; unlike them we also have access to her most intimate thoughts and musings. We get to know Agnes, because Kent is giving her a chance to speak and at length, a privilege denied in reality. There is significant emotional leverage in this, and the book is most powerful when it juxtaposes the bald, tedious administration of Agnes’ sentence with her vivid interiority.
Agnes' voice is dramatic and over-stimulated. She is educated to some extent and seems to understand the demands of speaking to an audience. She uses lots of rhetorical questions and repetitions in her narration, as though she is making an argument to a jury, and peppers everything with similes. Trussed to a horse on the ride to Kornsa she is, by turns, like a corpse, like a cow, like a body in a coffin, like a lamb for the slaughter. She relentlessly poeticises the world, to the point that it becomes wearing. There is something overblown about her. The success of the book hangs on whether you believe in this Agnes, or whether she seems overdone. I hovered between the two.
On the one hand I liked her hyperbole. It said a great deal about her: that she was desperate for experiences and for stimulation; that she was a romantic rather than a realist; that her apparent knowingness concealed the narrow range of her experience. These are the things that get her into trouble with Natan but they run counter to the impression she gives others. Everyone at Kornsa notes her self-possession. In previous work positions she has been thought haughty and aloof. In court this appearance of confidence served her poorly, because she seemed to lack humility and contrition. It confirmed people’s prejudice towards beautiful unmarried women, and made her appear tough, uncaring, mythical almost – one of those siren She-Devils from the Sagas.
In Agnes' own voice we hear a grown-up Tess Durbeyfield. A woman who has got used to the endless round of labour and leering, and found ways to protect herself but is essentially still innocent. It's clear that she was taken in by Natan - an Alec figure if ever there was one - eagerly beguiled by him because she was hungry to know someone who was clever like her, and interested in life. You see that she was looking for romance, that she believed in love, that she was very vulnerable. Kent's exercise in fictional revisionism gives us access to a confused and lonely woman, desperate to be someone else. She reaches fever pitch in the final pages of the novel, as it draws to its inevitable close on the day of her death.
At the same time I found Agnes’ style (and the style of the novel generally) quite wearing. It is lyrical to excess and ad-nauseam. There are some winning turns of phrase, but Kent piles on the similes and hits some off-key. Agnes’ bruises, for example, are ‘blossoming like star clusters under the skin’. Sometimes I felt a cringe coming on: ‘only the outlying tongues of rock scarred the perfect kiss of sea and sky.’ It doesn’t help that the range of symbolism that Agnes (and the novel) has to call upon is limited, and the same metaphorical touchstones rear up over and over: ravens, stones, lambs, corpses, the sea, the weather. This is a function of Iceland’s curtailed world, the narrow clarified register of experience. It's used to great effect elsewhere in the book but in the writing itself less of it would definitely be more.
I think Iceland is a glorious backdrop to psychological drama. The novel takes every opportunity to contrast the human desire to expand, express and become with the punishing restrictions of the Icelandic landscape. Kent shows how not just Agnes but everyone at Kornsa, from Jon to Lauga, is trapped. In winter wandering just a few feet from your door can be a death sentence. It begs the question of freedom: who is really free, if your movement and range is so closely circumscribed? It isn’t just the snow and the mountains that enclose you. Community life on the isolated farmsteads is stifling, with masters, servants and visitors constantly on top of one another both sleeping and waking. Everyone knows everyone else and their business. The opportunities for privacy are few and secrets are difficult to keep when everything is intimately witnessed by everyone else.
Agnes’ confessions to Toti are inevitably overheard – the proximity of her host family means she tells her life story for many ears. It is this act of sharing her stories, of making an empathic connection with her listeners, that redeems her. The best section of the book for me was not about Natan's murder or Agnes’ experiences since, but about the death of her foster mother in childbirth decades earlier. This episode was tense with realistic pain that the people listening could share and understand, a bridge between infamy and an ordinary life. There wasn’t enough of this in the book, not enough points at which Agnes’ story is grounded in the lived experience of others.
You can’t help but be angry for Agnes, can’t help but reflect some modern day gender politics onto her situation. Which is what Hannah Kent wants, after all. Men were threatened by a bright single woman and set out to destroy her! Natan was a bastard! Someone else made her do it! But what of the other characters, who are they? Margret, Lauga and Steina – in fact, all the other women of the novel – get particularly short shrift, despite enormous promise. Ultimately they are just people to grow sympathetic to Agnes, the first ‘readers’ of an alternate story of which we are the latest consumers. They are missed opportunities to dig a bit deeper into this constricted world.
I’m not surprised this was shortlisted for the Baileys Prize, even in preference to The Luminaries (which is definitely the better novel). I guess in the end it comes down to feeling. Burial Rites makes you feel things – I cried at the inevitable end – and you know that the story meant something to the person who wrote it. It’s all passion and while you’re reading it the intensity of that passion buoys you along - it feels big and epic. It was only afterwards that the overlooked characters and the prose faux pas started to niggle me.