On a warm August day we descended into the depths of the Thames Tunnel at the Brunel Museum for an evening in ‘Iceland’; the setting of Hannah Kent’s début novel, Burial Rites.
Source: All photos © ive.readthat.com
Rather than give the audience a synopsis of the novel, Hannah answered the question we all wanted to know; how exactly does a young girl from sunny Adelaide come to write about an Icelandic murderess?
It all began after leaving High School, on a Rotary exchange, where Hannah stumped her interviewers by answering that months spent in a dark cold country sounded ‘fascinating!’ As no other candidate piped up quite the same enthusiasm, Hannah was duly sent to Northern Iceland. During her time there she became aware of the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir who, in 1829, was condemned to death for her part in the brutal murder of her lover. Hannah describes how years later Agnes story stayed with her and she felt compelled to tell it. In the novel she describes how Agnes is sent to wait out her final months on a family farm. Horrified to have a convicted murderer in their midst, the family avoid contact with Agnes, but as the year progresses Agnes’s story begins to emerge.
For me at least, hearing Hannah describe her personal attachment to Agnes story was a little haunting. For whatever reason Agnes’s story does seem linger with you well after you finish the final chapter.
As the novel is based on actual events Hannah makes no secret of Agnes impending death -so much so that the novel begins even with the tragic; ‘They said I must die’. Simplistically there was no initial attraction for me to a novel where the authoress gives away the ending in the very first sentence. However, the pinnacle of Burial Rites is not in the characters fates, but rather in the circumstances which bought them to that point.
Due to her suspected part in the murders, Agnes is unsurprisingly labelled, and remembered, as a cold blooded murderess. As much as this may not be the case it becomes apparent early on that Agnes is neither a remarkable woman, nor is she a heroine. What Hannah has done is give her a voice. This story is not about changing perceptions but stands as a reminder of our own humanity, and that sometimes there is little escape from our own condition.
In the midst of gushing about the book to Hannah, I quite embarrassing blurted out “This is NOT something I would normally read” – Hannah if you are reading this I promise that it was meant as a compliment! If I’m honest I usually choose books on the number of adventures the characters have or one that promises a juicy ending. Burial Rites promised nothing of the sort, but I was utterly in love.
Not only does it have a great story; it is also one of the most beautifully written novels i have ever read. I honestly cannot recommend it enough.
If the over-eager smile doesn’t give it away, I have a major book crush on Hannah.
Because I enjoyed Burial Rites so much I would love to hear what you think! Once you have read the book please leave your thoughts in the comment box below.