It’s a mark of a good book that, even though you know what will happen in the end, you are compelled to keep reading. Burial Rites is one such book. It’s based on the true story of Agnes Magnusdottir, the last person to be executed in Iceland in the early 1800s. Between being sentenced for murder and her execution, she is sent to live with a local family (who are less than pleased to have to share their home with a murderer), while a young priest is tasked with ‘delivering her to God’.
As Hannah herself said, it’s not so much a ‘who dunnit’ as a ‘why dunnit’. It gives a voice to a woman painted in folklore as a black-and-white monster, but, importantly, it’s not a wholly positive voice. Agnes is not all good, or all bad, and it’s this middle ground which gives her a more rounded humanity.
It’s also a book full of engaging description of the landscape – you can tell Hannah has lived in and loved Iceland as a place. The sense of place is so strong that it feels like if the story happened anywhere else it wouldn’t have happened in quite the same way.
I went to ‘an evening with Hannah Kent’ at Waterstones York this evening where she talked, read and signed books. She spoke of knowing she wanted to be a writer from about age 6, but also knowing she would have to do ‘something else’ alongside. Towards the end of high school she became increasingly anxious about what this ‘else’ would be, so applied to spend a year abroad on exchange before going to Uni. She opted to go to Iceland. Ending up in a tiny town, mostly in the dark, she spoke of how much she stood out as an outsider/newcomer in a small community. A person who was literally stared at in curiosity. It was also where she first heard Agnes’ story, though Agnes was only described as a monster and little more. She did say that after a few months she connected with others and fell in love with the place, but, feeling an emotional connection between her own isolation & Agnes’ probable isolation (being imposed upon a small community), the story stayed with her.
Hannah also detailed the huge amount of painstaking research she did, from Australia and on a research trip back to Iceland, on both Iceland in the 1800s and Agnes’ story. It was fascinating to listen to. She said her way of trying to guard against any kind of cultural appropriation or exploitation was to stick to the facts absolutely, and to fill in any blanks fictionally with her general research. It was great to hear an author talk about this issue, especially after reading HHhH, and I’m really glad that it’s something she thought about sensitively. It’s in the process of being translated into Icelandic, but reviews from Icelanders who have read it have so far been positive!
There is possibly a film in the works (currently Jennifer Lawrence is signed up to play Agnes – she would be brilliant). Hannah’s currently writing her next novel which is also based on a true story but this time set in Ireland. Another beautiful landscape which I’m sure Hannah will do beautiful things with. I can’t wait.
Hannah Kent still has a few dates left of her UK tour, so do go and say hello if you get the chance. But definitely read the book. (And if you can, pick up the paperback pictured above, all the page edges are black! Oh beautiful book production for brilliant books, I do love you so.)