There’s nothing better than being told the book you have chosen is “A GREAT choice!” by someone in a bookshop, with extra emphasis on great. That’s what happened when I bought “Burial Rites” by Hannah Kent and it gave me a little thrill of anticipation. Yes, I thought, this is a great choice…I mean it must be because it’s encouraged an actual conversation between two English strangers! I left the shop buoyed up by this unlooked for piece of confirmation and could hardly wait to start it. So I did, even though I was already in the middle of another book and by rights this spur of the moment purchase should have gone to the bottom of my sizable ‘to-read’ pile. Sometimes you just have to be rebellious like that!
“Burial Rites” is one of the most beautiful books I’ve read in a long time. I can’t think of a better way to describe it; it’s literally the most beautiful book. I mean, it looks good, I especially liked the black edged paper, which reminded me of a Victorian funeral invitation, but even more than that Kent’s prose is just so lyrical and atmospheric. She perfectly captures the melancholy, claustrophobic and suspicious atmosphere of an Icelandic winter and the way she imbues her setting with an almost knife edge tension only adds to this. It makes me so happy, I know that’s a strange thing to say, because this is not really a happy book, but Kent’s writing was just so good I couldn’t help pausing now and then to admire it. I mean, when someone starts a chapter with “Autumn fell upon the valley like a gasp”, you can’t help it. I could write a whole review and base it on nothing more than my favourite turns of phrase and I wouldn’t know where to stop, I’d end up copying out the whole book! Plus the topic is fascinating.
There’s something I find very intriguing and mysterious about Iceland, I’ve always wanted to visit it, so I was instantly drawn to the book because of it’s setting. Additionally, I generally enjoy books which deal with the way women are perceived and treated, so to find out this book is based on the last woman in Iceland to be executed sealed the deal for me, because I couldn’t imagine a situation where she wouldn’t be a compelling character to try and explore. The thing I appreciated most in “Burial Rites”, with regards to Kent’s treatment of Agnes, was that she does not try to romanticise her. Agnes is not an innocent girl who finds herself in an awful situation. Instead she is a woman who, although certainly wronged, does not invite the sympathy of others.
I love the way Kent portrays Agnes. She emerges from the pages so vividly and distinctly. She’s prickly, angry and defensive but with just enough vulnerability to make you want to listen to her story, in short, she’s an enigma, one you want to work out.
One thing that Kent does very well is to utilise perspective to create a sense of myth and reality surrounding Agnes. The narrative is split into many differing perspectives: Agnes’s, Toti’s, Margret’s, but also the official perspective shown through letters of communication, court notes, official documents. These serve to dehumanise Agnes as she is reduced to being a criminal who must be made an example of. The emotionally detached way these passages deal with organising her execution, down to quibbling the price of the axe that will kill her, add a chilling clericalism to the proceedings, and to borrow Agnes’s own words suggested that those who pass judgment are hypocrites as they conspire to rob her of her life just as she robbed a man of his.
In many ways Agnes feels the way I would feel if I was sentenced to be beheaded, she’s occasionally prosaic but mostly she’s just angry and scared about her fate and that’s what I found relatable about her. Whichever way you look at it beheading someone seems a completely barbaric thing to do, even in 1829, when the novel is set, it seems like a relic from the past. For a long time I couldn’t get my head around the fact it was actually going to happen. I guess it’s all perspective, I’m used to the idea that the practice happened in Tudor England but 1829 seems so recent in comparison that it creates a strange contrast between modern and not-modern in my mind…Imagine Jane Austen going to a beheading! But it is the protracted nature of the whole process that Kent really expresses well. The way Agnes is forced to continue living, until somebody tells her the date she will die is like an extra torture, one that torments Agnes by encouraging her to forget what is to come only long enough for it to be like ripping a partially healed scab off when she remembers.
Part of what works well about the way Kent choses to present Agnes’ story is how little she reveals right away. When Agnes is first introduced she boldly announces that she will not tell her version of what happened, for it is the only thing that she has left to call her own. I found this a really interesting plot device considering I was only a few pages into the book. I wondered how the novel would go on with such a distinctly hostile protagonist but what resulted was better than if Kent had divulged the whole story from the beginning. Instead, as the book progresses and you watch Agnes become accustomed to life on the farm she starts to unfurl like a rarely blossoming flower, gradually revealing more of herself, as she learns to trust Toti and Margaret.
Agnes’s relationship with Toti is very well drawn out, her interaction with the trainee vicar is not only necessary for plot progression but also Agnes herself. He encourages a lightness in her that would wise be smothered by the black weight of her thoughts, which would remain trapped inside and festering away. In comparison to the world weary voices of other characters Toti is alternately wise beyond his years and crushingly naive, and that’s what is so nice about him. Agnes needs him because he listens to her, without judgement and without seeing only her crime before he has tried to understand who she is. It is her relationship with Margaret, the woman on whose farm she is held prisoner, however, that really steals the show for me. The way both women watch and circle around each other carefully, not wanting to trust each other (for differing reasons) but yet developing a begrudging respect through the necessity of working together in such close proximity is brilliantly drawn out. Margaret recognises something in Agnes that unnerves her because of its similarity to herself. Both women have worked hard only to receive unjust fates, one is dying, the other will die, it was fascinating to read.
I cannot stress enough how much this book is worth reading. Although it concerns a relatively depressing subject matter it was an engaging and interesting read, one that frequently left me crying, Kim Kardashian style. Don’t let this mental image put you off though because after I finished reading “Burial Rites” I felt as if all the cobwebs had been blown away from inside my brain and was left feeling fresh, the way crying over a good book will do sometimes. If my words aren’t enough to convince you, however, they are already planning to make a film out of Burial Rites with Jennifer Lawrence tipped to play Agnes…so you know it’s got Oscar gold written all over it! You also know that means you have to read this book before you go and see it on the big screen!
*Update* Burial Rites has been shortlisted for the 2014 Baileys Women’s Prize for fiction! I think this is a thorougly deserved achievement; Burial Rites was probably my favourite book of 2013.
Have you read Burial Rites?
What did you think of it?
Will you be going to see the film if it gets made?
Leave a comment and let me know!