So, my epic challenge starts with a debut novel, one that was heralded with a seven-figure advance and subsequently short listed for the Guardian First Book Award.
Burial Rites is a historical novel set in 1830 that narrates the final year in the life of the last woman to be publicly executed in Iceland, Agnes Magnúsdóttir. In 1829, three people in a remote farmstead are convicted of the murder of their employer, beaten and stabbed to death. Due to the lack of prisons on Iceland, one of the accused, Agnes, a servant woman in her thirties, is sent to work for a local family while she waits for a court in faraway Copenhagen to decide if and when her life should end.
Murder, remote communities and isolated landscapes are fertile material for a novel which, as Hannah Kent explains in her author’s note, aims ‘to supply a more ambiguous portrayal’ of Agnes, for whom the author clearly has deep and sympathetic knowledge.
Kent mines the final months of Agnes’ existence from historical records and creates a swirling, claustrophobic and dark tale that resurrects her heroine with skill and poignancy.
The prose is beautiful to read – spare, illuminating and lyrical – no word seems wasted, everything chosen with care, in order to immerse the reader not only in the fate of Agnes but in a world and a community of hardship and poverty, driven by the seasons and by the paranoia and bitterness that only lonely places can breed. The descriptions of the landscape are often painterly and are presented in words as crisp and clear as the northern setting itself.
As Agnes tells the story of the murders, the other characters of the novel and the reader come to know her, to care for her and finally, to hope for her. But we all know the ending. It is historical fact. And yet, when it comes, the execution is still shocking, written in sentences so striking as to demand re-reading and the final chapter is as powerful as anything I have read in many years.
Burial Notes begs comparison to Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace, one of my favourite books, yet it does compare favourably although it has a colder, more precise tone. But like Atwood, Hannah Kent has created a striking character in Agnes, an ambiguous and perplexing heroine who, even in death, cannot be pinned down. As she says early on in the book, ‘They will not see me. I will not be there’.
I look forward to her next book. Except, of course, I can’t buy it or read is for 20 years!
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