Some authors unwittingly struggle to let their story take centre stage, with a balance between the writer’s natural voice and the content of the narrative remaining tantalisingly out of reach. When this happens, with one element continually threatening to overshadow the other, a jarring read results. Thankfully no such problem is to be found with Burial Rites. Hannah Kent’s clean writing style lends itself perfectly to the cold and sometimes unforgiving landscape of Iceland, and pairs beautifully with the tragic tale which is the subject of her debut novel.
Set in the chilly landscape of Iceland and based on a true story, Burial Rites focusses on Agnes Magnúsdóttir – a women condemned to death in 1829 for her role in the brutal murder of two men. Following her conviction and while she awaits her execution date, Agnes is released into the custody of District Officer Jón Jónsson who lives on a farm with his wife Margret and their two daughters. Forced to accommodate a convicted murderess, it’s unsurprising that Agnes does not receive a warm welcome into the family home. So it falls to Tóti – a young assistant reverend who has been assigned to save Agnes’s soul – to offer some measure of understanding and kindness amidst such desperate circumstances.
As the seasons shift from the warmth of summer to the icy hardships of winter, Agnes slowly gains some measure of acceptance from her guardian family, finding comfort in the familiar rhythms of farm life. This passing of time also brings trust and a lessening of her oppressive loneliness, with Agnes gradually revealing the truth of her story. Sadly for Agnes though, such solace can only be temporary.
Cleverly told from the shifting perspectives of a small cast of characters via a blend of correspondence and direct narrative, Burial Rites has the reader constantly wondering … Is Agnes guilty? That’s not to suggest the story can be reduced to one simple question – quite the opposite is true. Burial Rites is a multi-layered tale that provides much for the reader to mull over: the cruelty of betrayed love, how one moment of madness can alter entire lives, and the true meaning of home and family.
Fundamentally though, this is a story about personal freedom – exploring the conflict between the truths we tell ourselves and the truths perceived by others – differences that can sometimes stifle or even imprison. Which version of ourselves is the truth?
PS. I recently discovered that Jennifer Lawrence is expected to star as Agnes Magnúsdóttir in the film adaptation … I do hope that comes to pass, as she will be perfect.