Review: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Quote and Cover of Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

‘Now comes the darkening sky and a cold wind that passes right through you, as though you are not there, it passes through you as though it does not care whether you are alive or dead, for you will be gone and the wind will still be there, licking the grass flat upon the ground, not caring whether the soil is at a freeze or thaw, for it will freeze and thaw again, and soon your bones, now hot with blood and thick-juicy with marrow, will be dry and brittle and flake and freeze and thaw with the weight of the dirt upon you, and the last moisture of your body will be drawn up to the surface by the grass, and the wind will come and knock it down and push you back against the rocks, or it will scrape you up under its nails and take you out to sea in a wild screaming of snow.’

This brilliant (in my opinion) debut novel tells the true story of Agnes, the last Icelandic woman from early 19th century convicted and executed for murder. I stumbled upon the title on my library OverDrive app, and I downloaded it on a whim. I had a feeling it was a cover I encountered before and the idea that this is a good book was somehow in my subconscious. So I read it, and OMG…it was a five star read.

Hannah Kent is great at conveying emotion and imagery through written word. The story got me hooked from the first paragraphs. I felt immersed in the Icelandic landscape which was so vividly described, the weather almost felt like a character in itself.  The bleakness of the landscape and the unforgiving weather complimented perfectly the story. It added to the sense of hopelessness, desolation and doom our heroine feels. This book makes me want to go and experience Iceland myself.

The other great element of this novel are its characters and the Icelandic society in general at that time. There are so many extremes here, one is either bad or good, and there is no in-between. You could not exist in a grey-zone in Iceland in 1829. There was no room for debate about your character. If you acted inappropriately or you made a mistake, you were forever doomed, there is not one thing you could do to redeem yourself. In a way the people of that time period felt similar in character to the weather, unforgiving and relentless in their pursuit of people who committed sins.

Thinking about these people from the perspective of their living circumstances I cannot image another behavioral outcome. They had a hard life, they had to scrape for a living and all of this needed to be endured under primitive circumstances. Image living in a one room cottage, where you made food, slept and socialized. A room with bad insulation and low light. Imagine living in one room with your parents/family and house servants. Imagine several people sleeping in the same bed. There was no space for intimacy. Today, not even prisoners have to endure such conditions. But back then that was a way of life. And Hannah Kent does not shy away from describing every sordid detail of that lifestyle.

‘This time they sent an officer of the court, a young man with pocked skin and a nervous smile. He’s a servant from Hvammur, I recognize his face. When his lips broke apart I could see that his teeth were rotting in his mouth. His breath was awful, but no worse than mine; I know I am rank. I am scabbed with dirt and the accumulated weeping of my body: blood, sweat, oil. I cannot think of when I last washed. My hair feels like a greased rope; I have tried to keep it plaited, but they have not allowed ribbons, and I imagine that to the officer I looked like a monstrous creature.’

At the start of the novel Agnes is already convicted and kept locked up until the authorities settle the details of her execution. And the novel relates her life up to when her sentence is carried out. These events are mixed with retellings of the Agnes’ past and her inner monologues. Slowly you come to know her and are able to form an opinion of her, her life and her actions. She is such a beautiful person. I felt deeply for her and could not comprehend the fact that she was going to die. This is what she thinks after they move her from the storeroom where she was kept in locked, without light or fresh air, for months:

‘How can I say what it was like to breathe again? I felt newborn. I staggered in the light of the world and took deep gulps of fresh sea air. It was late in the day: the wet mouth of the afternoon was full on my face. My soul blossomed in that brief moment as they let me out of doors. I fell, my skirts in the mud, and I turned my face upwards as in prayer. I could have wept from the relief of light.’

Burial Rites is one of the best novels I have ever read. Agnes and her story will stay with me for a long time. It is a book I will want to reread and one I will recommend to all.

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