16 May 2014

Burial Rites - a late-comer's review

(Friday files)

Burial Rites, by Hannah Kent, is being hailed as a ‘great first novel’. But that suggests that the book has a rawness that needs to be excused due the author’s lack of experience. Not so, this is simply a great novel, one that would make most aspiring writers say “I wish I could write like that”, and not just because of the unusual success that Hannah Kent has had with her first book.

Not many first-time authors would attempt a story set in Iceland in the early 19th century. Imagine the research required! Hannah Kent, who is from Adelaide, did indeed spend time in Iceland doing the research to make the book as realistic and accurate as possible. Without ever labouring the details, she sets the scene so that we can feel the icy winds, smell the cramped and decaying farmhouse and experience the social interactions of a small and impoverished rural community.

Agnes Magnusdottir, the main character, has been condemned to death for a brutal murder. While the authorities are deciding where and how her execution is to take place, she is sent to stay with a minor official, a farmer and his family, since Iceland, under the rule of Denmark, has no suitable prison.

Her story is gradually revealed as she interacts with the family, their neighbours and especially with Toti, the young priest who has been assigned to ensure that she goes to her death repentant. Hannah Kent skilfully builds the tension as we’re left wondering, almost to the end of the story, whether Agnes was in fact guilty of the murder.

All of the major characters are changed in some way by Agnes' presence in their lives, and this too is achieved, for the most part, through subtle writing. One of the criticisms levelled at the book by some is that there is too much repetition of images and symbols such as ravens and stones. Apart from wishing that Margaret, the farmers wife, wouldn't cough every time she appeared, I didn't find this a problem.

However, knowing that one of the main characters was a priest, I came to the novel with some trepidation, wondering whether this would be yet another story that mocked religion. Some of the characters are, indeed, narrow-minded and cruel legalists despite their claims to be Christian - just as are many who claim to be Christian in the real world. Agnes herself has long since lost her faith as a result of her experiences. But Toti’s faith, while somewhat naive because of his age, is never mocked. It would be revealing too much of the story to say more, but sacrifice is one of the themes that runs through the book, along with questions about what is truth.

I hope that Hannah Kent will not be overwhelmed by the response to her first novel and will continue to write unencumbered by expectations.

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