Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Burial RitesBurial Rites by Hannah Kent

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

My first reaction after reading Burial Rites by Hannah Kent was jealousy (and I mean this absolutely as a compliment) that she has created such an accomplished work of fiction while still in her 20’s. Per her author’s note at the back of the book, she became interested in the story of Agnes Magnusdottir, the last person executed in Iceland, while she was on a trip there in her teens. I respect Kent’s desire to portray Agnes in an ambiguous (rather than damning) light, and therefore to bring her to the attention of history in a way that is perhaps, more truthful, to the facts of what really happened.
The story of Burial Rites is a simple one; the novel tells the tale of Agnes’ final days after she is condemned to be executed for the murder of her lover and master, Natan Ketilsson. Agnes is kept with a farmer and his family until her death. The novel chronicles Agnes’ emotions during this transition time, as well as the reactions of the family she stays with, and their shifting perceptions of her. Agnes is  attended by Assistant Reverend Thorvardur Jonsson, and his conversations with her transform him in unexpected ways.
Burial Rites gives a strong sense of the political and social climate of Iceland in the early 1800’s. Kent portrays this world as a place in which the struggle for survival is ever-present, where life is reduced to the basics of finding and growing food, and of staying warm.
Just as Agnes’ execution is the final one in Iceland’s history, the Iceland of the novel is an island on the verge of change. It is a fascinating combination of the primitive and the modern. For example, literacy is almost universal, but at the same time, living conditions are filthy, often leading to illness and death.
I found it fascinating reading about Iceland during this time period. The sense of place that Kent creates is one of the strengths of Burial Rites.
However, I found the story itself less convincing. As readers, we know what will happen to Agnes from the start. Given that, I was not sure what direction the story would go, and for the first 100 pages or so, not a lot happened. Finally, Agnes begins to tell the story of her life, and in this way, Kent proposes the opinion that she never had a chance of success or happiness. In the final part of the novel, the mood shifts and takes on almost the tone of a mystery/suspense tale, as Agnes tells us what really happened on the night of Natan’s murder. Though the action is compelling, it seemed like Burial Rites wasn’t sure what type of book it wanted to be. The first third was slow-moving, descriptive, historical fiction; then it became more of a character study, and then it culminated in an action-packed conclusion. And the last chapters, which describe Agnes’ final moments before her execution, are told in the kind of excruciating detail that made me want to escape from the novel because they made me feel deep grief.
Burial Rites left me feeling a bit in the lurch, and not sure what I was supposed to take away from the story. In her author’s comments, Kent states that her intent was to provide a more “ambiguous portrayal” of Agnes to contradict the common description other authors of history have given of Agnes as an “inhumane witch.” While, as mentioned earlier, I can appreciate Kent’s intent, what I felt frustrated by was not knowing how much history actually supported Kent’s interpretation of Agnes. I’m not sure whether Hannah Kent simply felt sympathy for Agnes, and decided to write a fictional story that portrayed her in a kind way, or whether there is actually proof that Agnes was unfairly maligned by earlier writers. To me, this seemed like an important point that was not clarified, and one which would affect my final analysis of Burial Rites.
My sense was that, while Kent was able to find a wealth of information on Iceland in general during the 1820’s, that the actual facts of what happened during Natan’s murder were never clearly explained. What this leaves me with is a fascinating story, but one that has a sense of incompletion.
In the end, Burial Rites left me thinking about the reasons for, and difficulties in, writing historical fiction. While historical fiction can be a wonderful teaching tool, by making a past place and time come alive, and while it can be a source of enjoyment for readers, it also contains the possibility of misconstruing the character of real people who are no longer alive to tell their own stories.

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1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: Book Review – Burial Rites – 3 1/2 Stars | strivetoengage

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