24 March 2014
London

Hannah Kent’s first novel Burial Rites tells the story of a young murderess in 19th century Iceland. It’s a chilling, gripping tale, and an exciting literary debut from a talented Australian author.

Most first novel attempts by 20something writers tend to follow a predictable trajectory: present-day first person narratives about fragile relationships and residual Freudian mother issues. Kudos then to 29-year old Hannah Kent, whose widely praised debut novel Burial Rites (published in 2013) takes a bold imaginative leap out of her native Australia and into the wild, sinister terrain of 19th century Iceland.

Kent spent a year as an exchange student in Sauðárkrókur, a remote fishing village in North West Iceland, where she came across the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, an itinerant workmaid who was executed in 1829 for murdering her employer. While the Danish authorities waited for the king to confirm the verdict and sentence, Agnes was sent to live with a farming family for several months to await the date of her execution.

It’s an extraordinary story, and one that Kent tells with confidence and a keen observant eye for extreme geographical and emotional states. The basic facts of Agnes’ life and death are presented via court transcripts of her conviction and execution, which bookend the narrative. Between these signposts, Kent digs deeper, bringing her complicated protagonist to life with fierce grace and compassion, for the most part resisting sentimentality.

In clean, spare prose, fitting to describe the wintry elemental landscapes of rural Iceland. “[T]he uninhabited places are as cruel as any execution”, Agnes says, neatly describing a world essentially unchanged since medieval times. Houses are lined with dung with windows made from the stretched intestines of sheep, and the people live a desperate, a hand-to-mouth agrarian existence, week-long journeys by horse or foot, minimal medical care, and depressingly high death rates. The Icelanders themselves are a brooding, taciturn bunch, suspicious of outsiders and capable of extraordinary violence, but appreciative of the need for community to ensure their survival.

Into this unwelcoming environment, simmering with Calvinist determinism and resentment over Danish occupation, Kent places Agnes, a woman without family or money who is unwelcome everywhere and profoundly isolated. “[T]here is no home,” she says, “there is only this cold island and your dark self spread thinly upon it until you take up the wind’s howl and mimic its loneliness”.

In the first third of the story, Kent shifts between perspectives, presenting Agnes through a number of judgmental eyes who’ve condemned her as “the whore, the madwoman, the murderess, the female dripping blood into the grass and laughing with her mouth choked with dirt”. Chief among the voyeuristic onlookers are Thorvardur (Tóti), a young parson despatched to be her spiritual adviser, and Margrét, the initially distrusting farmer’s wife with whom Agnes is billeted. It’s a neat framing device that allows for a slow reveal as Agnes’ nature emerges and her account of events becomes stronger.

Kent’s finest writing is saved for Agnes’ interior monologues, in which she dives deep into Agnes’ loneliness, her wounded pride and her contradictory feelings of guilt, defiance and terror. It’s a convincing, authentic portrait of a complex young woman who’s as much a prisoner of her own mind as she is of the state. Unsurprisingly, images of entrapment and death abound. “[M]y heart flutters like a bird held fast in a fist”, Agnes says, describing a dream, her tongue so tired “it slumps in my mouth like a dead bird, all damp feathers, in between the stones of my teeth”. Elsewhere, “[s]now lay over the valley like linen, like a shroud waiting for the dead body of sky that slumped overhead.”

Though it’s rich on atmosphere and subtle emotional observations, Burial Rites plays out like a thriller. Slowly and carefully, Kent loads the bases for and against Agnes’ innocence. As we watch Agnes living among a hostile community and taking refuge in her memories, we ponder, “Did she do it?”. As in Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace (another historical novel about a young woman accused of murder), Kent drip-feeds us the “true” story slowly, taking care to show that nothing is as simple as it seems and resisting the temptation to provide a clear moral framework. As we learn of Agnes’ life – a litany of childhood neglect, death, sexual abuse and thwarted love straight out of a novel by Hardy or Dickens – we’re made to feel sympathy for her, even while we suspect that she has the perfect disposition to kill.

Kent has a great feel for characterisation, and she clearly relishes the opportunity to create female characters as strong and uncompromising as the heroines of the Icelandic sagas. The gradual thawing of the hostility between Agnes and Margrét, becomes one of the novel’s strongest features. By contrast, the men of Burial Rites are mostly a colourless, uninteresting lot. Tóti’s spiritual counselling of Agnes, which begins with an exciting rush of sexual tension and class anxiety, never really goes anywhere and eventually dissipates into thin air. Only Nadan, the charismatic outsider who Agnes is accused of killing, burns brightly, though we glimpse him entirely as a product of Agnes’ feverish romantic imagination. It’s as if Kent became so enraptured by her female characters that she left the much less interesting men behind. At other times there’s a frustrating sense of loose strands not quite brought together, and narrative opportunities not quite exploited to their full capacity.

Despite the dramatic denouement, the novel runs out of steam a little in its final sequence. After feeling so involved with Agnes’ story, it’s a disappointment to cut back to official versions of events, and we lose much of the emotional tension Kent has worked so hard to generate. Kent’s intention seems clear – she wants us to appreciate that the truth lies in the shadows of history, not in the official records – but I wonder whether the novel might have been stronger had she dispensed with the archival material and immersed the reader fully in her own narrative.

Despite these speed wobbles, Burial Rites is a gripping read that deserves a wide international readership. (There’s already talk of a movie version – my money is on Jennifer Lawrence to play Agnes, and Holly Hunter would make a terrific Margrét). It’s a fine example of the riches that can be gained when a writer don’t just write what she knows, but instead goes on a journey into her imagination.

There’s also an ambition and seriousness of purpose to Burial Rites that marks it apart from the post-Sex and the City narratives of many of her peers. “Everything I said was taken from me and altered until the story wasn’t my own,” Agnes narrates. Burial Rites gives Agnes back her story, and in doing so demonstrates the power of fiction to open up and reclaim the lost female narratives of history. It’s an impressive achievement, and marks Kent out as a major new talent. I can’t wait to see what she does next.

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