Thursday, 10 April 2014

Burial Rites, by Hannah Kent

The first step on my Spring mission to read the Bailey's Prize short list and I can't think of a better way to start.

Set in the desolate yet magical landscape of Northern Iceland in 1829, Burial Rites tells the story of the last year in the life of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, murderess, as she awaits her execution by beheading. Convicted of a bloody dual murder at an isolated farm by the sea, Agnes is incarcerated at the homestead of a local farmer and low-ranking public officer, as there are no prisons on Iceland in which she can be held.

Begrudging her presence and afraid of her past, the farmer, his wife and daughters attempt to ingore Agnes, setting her to work in the fields, the croft and the dairy. She's a hard worker, used to service and settles in as well as can be expected. With one so notorious and ruined under their (turf) roof, it is not long before the family are the subject of gossip within the sparse but tight knit valley community.

As the year rolls on, the seasons change from one to another and the annual cycle of lambing, shearing and slaughtering comes full circle, Agnes gradually imparts her life's story to the assistant reverend Tóti. Requested specifically by his charge, Tóti has been assigned the task of reconciling the condemned woman to her fate and bringing her back to the arms of God. The rest of the family, whatever their opinions of her (and it does vary greatly), are drawn into Agnes' history, as there is no privacy in a farm croft that only has one room.

Whether the reader believes Agnes' version of events or not (a decision that is left up to the reader) it's sobering to think of the countless times that the fate of an individual has depended on the stories, opinions and judgements of others. In this novel, the only person alive with a comprehensive viewpoint of events is Agnes, yet she is the last one to speak. She is an example to be made and there is little thought given to proving her guilt conclusively. Personally, I really liked Agnes- she is intelligent, resilient and the sections of the novel in which she speaks directly to the reader are the most arresting. Her voice and her words are lyrical and measured, and though she considers it an injustice, she is simply too tired and too powerless to do anything but accept her fate. She is not a victim and she never allows herself to be treated as such, she is just an innately tragic character- like Tess Durbeyfield or Lennie Small. Wrong place, wrong time.

Based on a true story, the book is incredibly well researched, and the lives of the characters and the world that they inhabit feels authentic and alive. It's a haunting, beautifully told story, and it is hard to imagine that such an accomplished work is the work of a début author. Kent's prose is impressive and quite unique in style, full of unexpected thoughts and sudden, striking images. Her descriptions of the impossible Icelandic winters and the frostbitten, rock strewn landscape are very evocative and some of the blizzards and frosts trigger a few involuntary shivers (and this even from a definite cold-weather dweller like myself). Though Iceland is a country that is infrequently featured in fiction, Burial Rites carefully and confidently brings to life the communities, customs and landscapes of such a unique country. Hannah Kent has done an incredibly good job of evoking the isolation, the grimness and the beauty of life on the edges of the world, and the character of Agnes Magnúsdóttir is going to haunt a lot of imaginations for a long time.

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