Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites is a powerful and riveting debut novel set in the stark, unforgiving landscape of northern Iceland in the 1820s. It is based on a true story of a woman charged with the death of her master on an isolated farm.
The Story: A pair of twenty-something sisters, Steina and Lauga, receive the unwelcome news that their family must house a prisoner at their modest farm. The prisoner is one of three people who have been convicted of a brutal double murder. She is a woman, a servant named Agnes Magnusdottir, and she has been condemned to die by beheading for her role in the murders.
Steina, Lauga, and their parents, Jon and Margret, have no choice but to accept the prisoner into their midst. Government officials bring Agnes to their farm, where she is expected to work for her keep, and sleep with the family in their communal bedroom, until the date of her execution.
Agnes is visited by a young “assistant reverend” nicknamed Toti, who has been appointed her spiritual guardian. Under Toti’s gentle prodding, Agnes tells the story of her difficult life, and her year as a servant at the site of the murders. Toti and the members of the farm family begin to suspect that the reality of the murders may be far more complex than what they have been led to believe.
My Thoughts: Rather famously in the literary world, Kent’s manuscript prompted a bidding war for the North American rights, and she received a seven figure, two-book deal. Not bad at all for a 27-year-old graduate student. Burial Rites has received much critical acclaim; Pulitzer Prize-winning Geraldine Brooks, a fellow Australian who served as a mentor to Kent, is among those who have praised the novel. The novel was shortlisted for the 2014 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, and now, reportedly, will become a movie with Jennifer Lawrence in the role of Agnes (and let me just say--this could be one heck of a movie!).
All of this begs the question, of course: is this book worth all the hype?
For me, Burial Rites is, indeed, a vivid, raw, and haunting novel. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that a few scenes took my breath away. Kent’s prose is crisp and clear, and perfectly suited to the story she tells. Not a few times, the book reminded me of Brooks’ novels, although I don’t mean to imply that Kent is derivative. She is, like Brooks, a gifted storyteller who fully immerses readers into a world very different from our own.
I’d offer a few criticisms here—the novel, although an enormously impressive debut, is not a perfect book. Kent tells the story from three different perspectives, switching from the points of view of Agnes, Toti, and an omniscient narrator, and uses the text of a few letters by government officials and other documents. The novel is strongest by far when we hear Agnes’s raw and aching point of view, and I wonder what the book might have been if it had been told only in her voice. I felt, as well, that the character of Toti could have been more deeply fleshed out. The sisters, Steina and Lauga, could have been developed further as well. Kent takes pains to demonstrate that one sister is suspicious of Agnes, while the other is drawn to her; I wanted to know more about each sister and why their reactions to Agnes differed so greatly.
In any case, Burial Rites is a beautifully told and moving novel, well worth the read for those who like literary fiction and historical fiction. Hannah Kent is a young writer to watch, and I will read her next novel in a heartbeat!