Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

It’s the most extraordinary thing and it happened when I was least expecting it.  A writer has emerged from Australia with all the poetry and beauty in her words that her country exudes by the bucket full.

Burial Rites

Burial Rites

An unlikely topic in which to find such eloquence and beauteous flow, but it is here in the subject of the last application of Capital Punishment that took place in Iceland on January 12, 1830 that Hannah Kent has chosen to launch her debut novel.

The story is centred on the convict Agnes Magnúsdóttir, a farmhand and Friðrik Sigurðsson, a farmer’s son from Katadalur.  Together they were convicted of the crime of murdering two men and for this; they were executed by beheading.

Grim must have been Hannah’s days as she researched the details of the execution methods most commonly used, such as burning at the stake, beheading and drowning.  She would have delved into archives that in shivering detail would have described how men were more commonly beheaded or hung.  That, supposedly-wayward women were lowered into the river directly next to the Law Rock itself with ropes, to either freeze to death or drown.  Because Agnes was accused of killing her lover Nathan, the question of the choice of her execution hangs in the air like frozen stalactites; sharp as a hanging dagger, unanswered and so failing to plunge into the darkness and shatter the peace.

The structure is inspired.  Agnes talks to you in the first person but the other characters in this gripping tale are written in the third person.  The resulting affect is that you can feel, see and hear everything from all sides, all around you.  Her skill is to be admired and thoroughly applauded.  But more than this, it is the very words she uses that bring you to Agnes’ very soul in torment:

“The sagas I know by heart.  I am sinking all I have left and going underwater.  If I speak, it will be in bubbles of air. They will not be able to keep my words for themselves. They will see the whore, the madwoman, the murderess, the female dripping blood into the grass and laughing with her mouth choked with dirt.  They will say ‘Agnes’ and see the spider, the witch caught in the webbing of her own fateful weaving.  They might see the lambs circled by ravens, bleating for a lost mother.  But they will not see me.  I will not be there”.

If you read anything this year then please, read this.  Its hard subject is dealt with so sensitively and with such nurturing care that you will feel as if you are the one gifted with Agnes’ lost life and smile as you greet your day.