I know very little about Iceland, I know even less about Icelandic history, and I know precisely nothing about the 19th century justice system and capital punishment so choosing to read Hannah Kent’s historical fiction début novel Burial Rites was well and truly choosing to be thrown headfirst into a setting which I was not familiar with and had no point of reference to cling onto. However, Kent’s cleverly woven prose style is so lyrical and evocative that within paragraphs I felt the harsh winds whipping across the unforgiving, yet beautiful, landscape as we are introduced to our condemned protagonist, Agnes Magnúsdóttir, and the brutal crime of which she is accused.
“To know what a person has done, and to know who a person is, are very different things.”
Set in 1829, Burial Rites tells the story of Agnes, a servant charged with the brutal and calculated murder of her former master and lover, Natan Ketilsson. The authorities send the murderess to be held by a district officer, Jón Jónsson, at his farm in rural Kornsá, living with his wife and two daughters whilst awaiting the capital punishment to which she has been sentenced, an arrangement that, unsurprisingly, causes rifts within the household. As allowed by law, Agnes bizarrely requests a particular unassuming Assistant Reverend, Tóti, to be her spiritual aid, intended to show the condemned brute the error of her ways and prepare her soul for its final judgement and repentance of its horrific acts. However, instead, those at Kornsá begin to better understand the shape of Agnes’ past beyond the labels which she has been assigned.
As a reader, you bear the weight of accusation and suspicion that falls upon Agnes through regular glimpses into her own thoughts via passages told in first person narrator. What these reveal from even the outset is a deeply complex persona, a character that cannot so easily be branded right or wrong, virtuous or sinful, “innocent” or “murderer”, the latter of which she is by the Icelandic justice system and thereby its suspicious population. The truth behind Agnes’ crime is promised from the beginning, but it isn’t until the final, falling moments of the story that all is revealed, characters stripped back to reveal uncomfortable truths, and, finally, an understanding is granted to the family at Kornsá and the reader. In Kent’s hands, Agnes’ character is painted with the shades of grey which frustrate criminal justice precisely because they make an individual’s motivations ambiguous and, thereby, any final judgement of their character an impossible and thankless task.
“It’s not fair. People claim to know you through the things you’ve done, and not by sitting down and listening to you speak for yourself.”
Similarly, Kent doesn’t allow for stock characterisation of the other figures that play a part in Agnes’ story. Natan Ketilsson can somehow, simultaneously, be figured as the dark romantic symbol of passion and yet also be as cold, unforgiving and brutal as the landscape which surrounds him. We learn of him best through Agnes, our impression of him necessarily prejudiced by the teller of the story. Through this device, Hannah Kent illustrates the major problem of understanding motivations behind actions – you can never truly know a person and therefore you can never truly know why they do what they do. It is more convenient to believe clear-cut labels which society assigns – man, woman, mistress, wife, servant, witch, priest, thief, murderer.
“It was only later that I suffocated under the weight of his arguments, and his darker thoughts articulated. It was only later that our tongues produced landslides, that we became caught in the cracks between what we said and what we meant, until we could not find each other, did not trust the words in our own mouths.”
Assistant Reverend Thorvardur Jónsson, known as Tóti, plays much more than the “spiritual guardian” role with which he is charged. From his conversations in the badstofa with Agnes we learn as much about his own faith as his charge’s, and deeply personal fireside talks which could have led down the road of romance coupled with religious doubt, did not – I was pleased (and heartbroken) to see such possibilities did not come to fruition. If anything I would say this is the strength of the book – just when you think you understand what a character will do, or why a character did (or did not) do a specific thing, the rug is pulled out from under your feet yet again and you find yourself once more on uncertain footing. I liked that I was wrong, multiple times, and I liked that the characters surprised not only each other but myself, the reader. I both hated, and liked, that any neat and happy endings were denied.
For me, only District Commissioner Björn Blöndal was easy to pin down – he is the hand that pens the epistolary opening in which the crime is initially conveyed in fact-based legalese. The presentation of legal documents alongside the third-person omniscience and Agnes’ first-person narrator are woven together with remarkable dexterity, especially for a writer’s début novel. The crime is presented after the fact, after the punishment has been decided, and Burial Rites acts as the final passage to this enactment of punishment. Blöndal is a figure oddly detached from Agnes’ story – he may organise and authorise events which affect her, but he never meets her, and certainly the reader’s only “meeting” with him is through Tóti, a meeting which left an unpleasant taste in my mouth as we see the comforts of Blöndal’s life as Commissioner, so crudely and carelessly mentioned, deeply contrasting the insatiable hunger and bone-chilling cold which characterises life at Kornsá.
“I am scabbed with dirt and the accumulated weeping of my body: blood, sweat, oil.”
It’s a testament to Kent’s writing that I could have happily consumed this book in a single sitting in terms of mere page length but I actively chose to slow down my reading and take my time with this book. The slow, almost languid, pacing of this book makes reading it over the course of a week or so actually preferable, in my opinion, to finishing it in a single sitting. It might be a gross generalisation of culture but even the pacing feels Nordic – there’s something about the slow and steady unravelling of a plotline, amidst atmospheric writing and complex characterisation that, for me, has come to characterise contemporary Nordic TV drama, and Kent’s novel matches this tone perfectly. Just as Agnes’ incarceration before punishment slowly unfolds, so too does the truth of her alleged crime, until the narrative heightens to a crescendo that isn’t so much a climax as the slowly borne (but nonetheless sudden) ending that seems much too abrupt and yet, oddly, fits entirely with the character of the novel. Above all, the conclusion of Burial Rites, and of Agnes’ life, is an inevitability and that is at the root of why Hannah Kent’s Icelandic début leaves such a heart-breaking and haunting impression.
“They will see the whore, the madwoman, the murderess, the female dripping blood into the grass and laughing with her mouth choked with dirt. They will say “Agnes” and see the spider, the witch caught in the webbing of her own fateful weaving. They might see the lamb circled by ravens, bleating for a lost mother. But they will not see me. I will not be there.”
I found myself listening to Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago whilst reading Burial Rites. I was looking for fairly non-offensive, calming (read: droning) melodies that would somewhat blend into the background and not affect my reading comprehension. Inexplicably, but rather fortuitously, the album’s longing and lamenting tone made it, in my opinion, a good match for the novel so if you’re the sort of person who likes a bit of background music whilst reading, I’d recommend giving it a listen alongside to see if it fits for you too.