Set in rural Iceland in the late 1820’s, ‘Burial Rites’ is based on a real life double murder case. In the absence of places to detain criminals for any length of time, the convicted murderers are each sent to stay with different families across the area.
One of these prisoners is Agnes. The family she is assigned to rails against her presence, refusing to call her by name, and the youngest daughter in particular is shamed to have her living under their roof. In the months leading up to her execution, Agnes internally rages against her conviction. Gradually, through Agnes’ stories to her priest, and eventually to the family themselves, the truth behind the death of her two alleged victims is uncovered.
As Agnes tells her story, the family also get to know her and start to accept her presence, forcing them to question their prejudices. This asks the larger question of whether the legal system can be trusted to make the right decision, tying in to a historical feminist debate of how women are perceived. Agnes is firm in her belief that a local perception of her as having ‘ideas above her station’ and gossip about her being ‘loose with her morals’ has played a role in her conviction, and that if she was dumb, young or pretty, she wouldn’t have been considered capable of instigating such crimes.
An immense amount of work has clearly gone into writing this book, and I can only image the many hours of research that it must have taken. The result is that Hannah Kent has managed to evoke a real sense of how Iceland would have been in the 1820’s, from the geography and layout of the farms to the culture of the times. The story is based on real events, and Kent has taken advantage all of the parish records, letters and court records at her disposal, as well as local stories passed down by word of mouth. The people and places featured in ‘Burial Rites’ are all real, used by Kent to put together an interpretation of events that is as historically accurately as possible.
Agnes is a tough character to get to like at first, she’s angry, bitter and hard – just as anyone in her situation would be. But it’s this that makes us empathise with her all the more. She becomes incredibly real as a character, and by the end of the novel I was completely emotionally involved with her and her fate.
It is fairly slow moving, there’s no getting away from that. And it is also image packed – so if you’re not a fan of hyperboles, similes and metaphors, you might find it tough going. I though, thought that it was beautifully written. The cold, the snow and the hardships of living in such an isolated and extreme landscape is described in such detail that I can still vividly picture long after finishing the book. Hannah Kent also manages to really make us feel the forced intimacy and claustrophobia of living in close quarters, where all family members and servants work together, live together and sleep together in one room.
It’s easy to see why this book has been shortlisted in this year’s Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction. It’s up against books like Donna Tartt’s ‘The Goldfinch’, but I think this could be one to watch. The winner’s due to be announced on 6th June.