Hannah Kent’s début historical novel is set on the frigid farms of early 19th century Iceland. The courts have convicted Agnes Magnusdottir of murder. To save money, local authorities send her to a minor official’s farm. She works there with the family and awaits execution while a young priest attempts to guide her on the Lord’s path.
Her presence creates a scandal in the cold northern valley. Neighbours flock to the farm. Some are afraid while others are curious. Some hate Agnes while others, like Steina, the farm owner’s daughter, seek to befriend her. Still others, like Margret, the mistress of the house, slowly change their opinion of her in the months leading to her execution.
The priest, a nervous wreck named Toti, finds quoting psalms and lecturing on religion ineffective. It’s clear from the start Agnes isn’t interested in spiritual advice. More importantly, she doesn’t feel she’s done wrong. So instead of sermonizing, Toti lets her tell her story. In this way, the narrative of her life as an abandoned illegitimate child as an itinerant servant is interwoven with her life as a prisoner waiting execution.
Iceland’s last case of capital punishment inspires the novel. Agnes Magnusdottir was a real person, as were her victims, Natan Ketilsson and Petur Jonsson. Ketilsson’s brother beheaded her on behalf of the state in 1830, and curious souls can still visit her grave. Kent, an Australian, has lived in Iceland, and she researched her narrative extensively. Yet the heart of the story — how Agnes felt in her last days — is speculative.
Kent’s writing is easy and evocative. She brings 19th century Iceland — with its houses of dusty sod, its frozen fields, and its rocky shores lined with seals — vividly to life. The social context is also fascinating. Denmark rules over the island, and most farmers rent land from absentee owners. Leaseholders hire farmhands and servants to supplement family labour, giving rise to distinct hierarchies — not to mention seasonal romances and conflicts.
The interesting topic, unusual setting, and pleasant writing make this a very enjoyable novel. Ultimately, however, the story fails to build effectively, and Kent’s skill with prose is not strong enough to make up for the narrative’s shortcomings. Enjoyment felt in reading the books first half slowly gives way to worry, and then boredom, as the climax one awaits never appears.
Burial Rites suffers from the ‘premise problem’ — a frequent malady of début writers. It goes like this. You think of a great premise for a book — ‘The last woman executed in Iceland awaits her death at cold northern farm’ — and then, with little further development, you begin to write.
A premise is not a story. It doesn’t involve narrating change, but describing a situation. And that’s what Burial Rites reads like. A long description.
Agnes changes little throughout the novel. In the ‘Author’s Note,’ Kent states she aimed to paint a complex picture of her. She does this effectively, portraying her as much more than a murderess.
But she does nothing else with her. Agnes simply waits at the farm for her death, and then she dies. She is a helpless protagonist reduced to watching other people act and not acting herself.
Hers is a tragic story worth telling. Yet it doesn’t have the momentum to bear 300 pages of text. Combined with a few bumps in the writing — ‘quickly’ and ‘immediately’ shouldn’t appear on the same line; ‘approach’ shouldn’t be used twice in one sentence – and the book is disappointing.
Of course, this critique is set against the massive marketing machine that has promoted Burial Rites to the far corners of the earth. Go into your local bookstore and you’ll probably see it on the front table. It’s not that the book is bad, just that it doesn’t live up to the hype.
Despite its flaws, Burial Rites remains a solid début from a promising new voice. The narrative could use more drive, and its lead characters more development. Nonetheless, it offers a beautiful portrait of a little-known time and place, and a touching profile of a condemned woman who is more victim than perpetrator.