Thursday, 11 July 2013

Burial Rites - Hannah Kent

Life in 1830s Iceland is stark and difficult, but there is a sense of beauty and peace among those hardy enough to make a life there. This peace is disrupted by two brutal murders, news of which travels from settlement to settlement, the frenzy building as a young woman, Agnes, is accused, tried and convicted. She is sentenced to death. 

The governor decides Agnes must wait out her execution on an isolated farm. Her arrival there disrupts the quiet between the farmer, his wife and their two daughters, all of whom are horrified at the prospect of having this woman share their home, their life. Agnes herself is stoic, doing her work as best she can and only slowly letting down her guard to Toti, the young priest she has mysteriously chosen as her spiritual guide. As Toti struggles to guide Agnes towards redemption, the farmer's wife, Margaret, begins to sense that there is another side to the sensational story they've heard.

A suspenseful and riveting novel rich with vivid lyricism and page-turning suspense, Burial Rites evokes a harsh and dramatic existence in a distant time and place, and asks the heartbreaking question: how can one woman endure when her life depends upon the stories told by others? Based on a real-life story, this is an astonishing debut that heralds the arrival of a great new talent.

Burial Rites is a debut and based on it, I think I need to read everything Hannah Kent plans on writing. It is a stunning debut that had me staying up late and reading when I should have been doing other things. 

Set in Iceland of the early 1800s, Kent takes us through the year or so leading up to Iceland's last execution. Agnes Magnusdottir has had a rough life and is in a horrible state when she is dropped off at the Kornsa farm to await her execution. She's angry at the world for abandoning her and trying to ready herself for a fate that she doesn't feel she deserves.

As she grows accustomed to life on the farm, she warms up a bit and becomes closer than anticipated with the family there. Through talking to the Reverend she has picked to be her spiritual advisor, Toti and eventually opening up to the family, the reader (and the others in the novel) get to hear the true story of Agnes Magnusdottir and not just what all the local gossips have to say about her.

This novel is meticulously researched and it shows with all of the details and impressive setting description that pulls the reader right into nineteenth century Iceland, even if they can't pronounce all the names correctly. There are chapter starters that are actually translated from real letters and documents of the period that add all the more to the story, showing just how much of this novel is created from the true story it documents.

Kent's sparse sense of prose adds to the bleakness of the landscape and of Agnes's mind, briefly colored with the rare happy memory. Each of the characters is vividly painted, from the daughter who wants absolutely nothing to do with Agnes to the Reverend who wants to be there for her even when he's too ill to ride. Despite Agnes clearly being the focus (she's the only character that gets to narrate her own story), all of the other characters are well defined and watching them slowly begin to realize Agnes's true nature adds warmth and tragedy to the narrative.

As the novel drags on to its inevitable conclusion, the reader watches in horror as things continue and reads hastily as she begins to find out the true details of what happened the night of the murders. I read the last hundred pages or so in an hour, so determined to find out what happened and to spend my last moments with Agnes.

This book reads as a love letter to Iceland and a remembrance of a remarkable woman who was perhaps too smart for her time and place. I respect Hannah Kent and look forward to what she decides to tackle in the future. I'm sure it will be magnificent. 

Burial Rites comes out September 10th from Little, Brown and Company.

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