I realise that I may be the last person in the world to read ‘Burial Rites’, Hannah Kent’s much lauded debut novel.
It caught my eye a long time ago, when it was newly published, I acquired a copy, but when it arrived it didn’t call me. I think that maybe I read a little too much about it, maybe I felt that what I read and the knowledge that it was based on real, historical events said to me that there was less reason to read this book that there were to read other books.
I picked it up a little while ago, because it had been waiting for long enough, and it was time for me to either read it or let it go.
When I started to read I discovered that, though the story played out much as I thought it would, though there were no real surprises, the telling of the story was so very good that I had to keep reading.
The facts underpinning this book are simple and stark:
‘Agnes Magnúsdóttir was the last person to be executed in Iceland, convicted for her role in the murders of Natan Ketilsson and Pétur Jónsson on the night between the 13th and 14th of March 1828, at Illugastadir, on the Vatnsnes Peninsula, North Iceland.’
The story opens in 1829, a year after Agnes –and two others– had been found guilty of the two murders. Agnes was sent north, into the custody of District Officer Jón Jónsson, to work on his farm until the time came for her execution. where she will await the day of her beheading. District Officer, his wife Magrét and two daughters, Lauga and Steina, all of whom regard her with suspicion and distrust, but as they had no choice in the matter and they had to find ways to cope.
Allowed visits from a spiritual advisor , to prepare her for what lay ahead, and Agnes asked for the Assistant Reverend Thorvardur Jónsson. He had no idea why he had been chosen. He was young and inexperienced, and he knew that he was ill-equipped for the role he was called upon to play.
In time Agnes proves herself to be a good worker on the farm, and quiet and obedient in the house. The family relax, just a little, and Agnes realises and appreciates that. She begins to wonder if a reprieve as possible; and she slowly begins to talk about her past, and about the events that led up to the night of the murders.
The story is so well told. The prose is cool, clear and compelling; perfectly matched to the story.
The setting: 19th century Iceland, its landscape, its climate, its small rural communities are as caught perfectly. The isolation of the farms and the claustrophobia that comes when many people must share a small farmhouse are particularly striking. And the atmosphere is exactly right.
The narrative moved from the third person (for the District Officer’s family and the Reverend) and first person (for Agnes) quite naturally, and very effectively. It offered insights into all of the characters thoughts, and it placed events on that terrible, fateful night, as they were lived through by the person charged with the crime, at the centre of the story.
What happened was inevitable, Agnes had realised that, but she realised it far too late. She knew that:
‘All my life people have thought I was too clever. Too clever by half, they’d say. And you know what Reverend? That’s exactly why they don’t pity me. Because they think I’m too smart, too knowing to get caught up in this by accident.’
Agnes’s story was harrowing, but it was utterly believable. At times it was difficult to read, already know how her story would end, but she had become real to me and so I had to keep turning the pages.
I can understand why ‘Burial Rites’ has been so lauded. The story is compelling and thought-provoking; the writing is rich and atmospheric; and it’s hard to imagine that a better story could have been spun around the known facts.
My only disappointment was the inevitability of it all. Of course the ending was inevitable, but I couldn’t help feeling that one thing that stood against that, one thing that suggested things really could be different, might have – for me – been the spark that would transform this book from ‘very good’ to ‘great’, from ‘memorable’ to ‘unforgettable’.
I’m sorry that I couldn’t find that spark.
In the end I found much to admire but I found little to love; and now I’m not sorry that I can let go of what is ultimately a dark story with an unhappy ending.