‘Burial Rites’ is an amazing achievement for debutant novelist, Hannah Kent. It is based on historical fact, but seeks to present the story of an historic victim, Agnes Magnusdottir – the last person to be executed in Iceland.
Much of the origins of or inspiration for the manuscript derive from Kent’s time in Iceland as an exchange student. Her experience of the country in her time away from Australia have clearly impacted her interests in Icelandic history and culture. Her skill as a writer brings to the reader an awareness of the sights, sounds and smells of the countryside where the chilling events of murder and mystery take place – it is a very visceral experience.
‘Burial Rites’ raises many different questions along the way, though we need to be mindful of the times and places it reflects. Kent is sympathetic to Agnes in a time of poor respect for impoverished females. Agnes Magnsudottir was clearly a victim of her time and gender. And, as a convicted murdress, she paid the ultimate price for love.
When Agnes is ‘assigned’ to a modest farming family for detention for the days prior to her execution, there is understandable conflict. Her choice of an assistant priest to guide her last days adds to the confusion of this assignment – a curious tension. Include among this the judgemental village mentality, along with attitudes of those in power, and there is little hope for redemption for Agnes. Still, her story must be told.
Many questions are raised along the way. What were the events which lead up to the murder of Natan Ketilsson? How did it come about that Agnes was in his household at the time? Was Agnes indeed guilty, or merely a victim of time and place? And how many others might have acted in a similar way given the same circumstances?
As mentioned in a previous post, I ‘read’ Burial Rites through 2 different mediums – as an audiobook and a paperback – and valued each highly.
To be introduced to ‘Burial Rites’ through an Audible.com edition gave me a wonderful grasp of culture and voice – which I would have missed if I had only just picked up the physical book (read here: pronunciation and authentic accent). There was also a greater impact to have all the introductory notes read out to me (since I usually just scan these hurriedly) ; though I didn’t realise this till later on – these are important to both cultural understanding and significant endings of the tale.
Another advantage of the audio edition was that the names of people and places were clear. When it came time for me to read the physical edition, (as I became impatient to read more and quickly…), at least I knew how names were to be pronounced! I could also sense the differing voices of the characters which occurred as changes from one personal view to another occurred. This was particularly strong when Agnes spoke in the tale.
In the video below Hannah Kent talks about her first introduction Agnes Magnusdottir, and to the area where the last execution in Iceland occurred – and how her inspiration and interpretation of the historic fact developed into ‘Burial Rites’ – as an author ‘drawn to absences and gaps’:
Clearly, I love historical fiction and its potential to place a different or alternative spin on the past. What do you think?