Review: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Burial Rites Book Cover Burial Rites [2013] – ★★★

Burial Rites is a debut book by Hannah Kent, an Australian author. It tells a fictional account of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, a real person who had the distinction of being the last person in Iceland to be executed through a death penalty after her conviction for the murder of two men. In the book, Agnes is one of the three murderers convicted, alongside Fridrik Sigurdsson and another servant Sigrídur Gudmundsdóttir. While Agnes awaits her execution, she is transported to an ordinary farm dwelling of Jón Jónsson, his wife Margrét and their daughters Steina and Lauga. While there, Agnes starts to forge human connections and even friendships, while also slowly starting to tell her story and her version of events. Burial Rites is slightly better than an average novel because it is well-written, takes a true story as its starting point, and also because it more or less conveys the fascinating peculiarities of that atmospheric place which was historic Iceland. However, on all other fronts, the book is a disappointment. It may be important to know the name of Agnes Magnúsdóttir and the Icelandic folklore, but there is not enough material here for an engaging book and, what is even worse, – the characters presented are unmemorable and one-dimensional, and the main character of Burial Rites is almost unsympathetic. The novel’s beginning may be strong, but the rest of the book is excruciatingly tedious and painfully predictable. 

Kent starts her novel strongly. In the spirit of Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace [1996], Burial Rites recounts the hardship and injustice surrounding the heroine’s life following her conviction for murder. A third-person narration is used alongside a first-person narrative to dramatise and make the story of Agnes more personal. Thus, there are such unsettling passages in the book as “I remain quiet. I am determined to close myself to the world, to tighten my heart and hold on to what has not yet been stolen from me. I cannot let myself slip away. I will hold what I am inside, and keep my hands tight around all things I have seen and heard, and felt” [Kent, 2013: 29]. Agnes also tells the readers about her childhood and upbringing on various farms in the communities steeped in superstition, before recounting her “love” story shared by Natan, one of the men killed, and finally moving on to the events of that murder night. Surprising past connections are revealed between the characters, and the inclusion of poems and correspondence in the book give the story poetic and realistic tones.

However, one of the immediate problems of Burial Rites is that, by the standards of a fiction book, nothing much happens in it, and the novel is as uneventful as it is unexciting. The meandering story is totally devoid of thrills, even though the book is often marketed as a crime thriller. Moreover, as the book moves forward, it becomes even more tedious and predictable. It is true that Burial Rites is somewhat of a page-turner, but it is a page-turner simply because the narrative is so dragging and the readers just cannot wait to finally move forward and discover the real truth or come to some twist. They will be poorly rewarded for their wait too.

Another problem with the book is that, for a story allegedly based on true events (even if drawing inspiration), Burial Rites does not break any new grounds. People who are unfamiliar with the hardship and injustice flowing from the practices of the criminal justice system of the past may well be impressed with the book, but there is really nothing in this story which is not in conformity with the national crime statistics of that period. The story of Agnes is more or less tragic as almost any convict story from that period; and that taking into account the fact that Kent largely fantasised the account of Agnes, meaning that the author could have been more imaginative then. The procedures of the criminal justice system in the 1820s were often very imperfect, leading to some unfair results. The arbitrary conviction, the appalling treatment and the usual stigma attached to a convict have all been well-documented in the past, and, given all this, the story of Agnes does not ring as remarkable or unusual. The author wants us to feel sympathy for Agnes and view District Commissioner Björn Blöndal as a heartless man, but the truth of the matter is that probably the state of justice at that time, especially judicial procedures and evidence rules, are as much to blame for the fate of Agnes as anyone else. Unlike Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale [1985], there is no dystopian setting here to get us all intrigued, and Agnes does not have that many thrilling secrets to divulge to us for the tale to become absorbing and interesting. Thus, the fact that the story is set in cold Iceland may just be the only exotic factor in the story, being especially appealing to the author of all people since her home is hot Australia.

To make matters worse, it becomes difficult to sympathise with Agnes because her own account is detached and matter-of-fact-like, until the very end of the book. Agnes’s choices in the story, including the allegedly uncontrolled choice of her immediate company, hardly point to her having “an excellent intellect” [Kent, 2013; 95], as the book suggests. Kent tries for us to like Agnes because she makes her character love books, but even that inclusion feels manipulative and forced.

It is interesting to hear about the heroine’s passions, especially for a man called Natan – “I cannot remember not knowing Natan. I cannot think of what it was not to love him. To look at him and realise I had found what I had not known I was hungering for. A hunger so deep, so capable of driving me into the night, that it terrified me” [Kent, 2013: 194]. This is rather beautifully presented, but the second part of the story is still not so much about Agnes as about one man and a number of females unreasonably competing for his love and attention. There is some love melodrama, which appears to be taken straight from some TV series. The question moves from “did she, did she not?” to “will he, will he not?”, and that is about a priest in the story – one Assistant Reverend Thorvardur Jónsson (Tóti), who presents a rather pitiful character, rather than an inspirational or an interesting one. Therefore, apart from Agnes, who perhaps remains ambiguous on purpose, all other characters are badly-drawn and we hardly get to know much about them, let alone care. They appear very much one-dimensional. That includes Tóti, but also Jón’s daughters and even Natan. The character of District Commissioner Blöndal is never the villain we all want to hate, and is strangely dropped as a character half way through.

Some passages in the novel are indeed striking, poetically-beautiful or witty, such as the passage: “those who are not being dragged to their deaths cannot understand how the heart grows hard and sharp, until it is a nest of rocks with only an empty egg in it” [Kent, 2013: 317], but, other passages that use metaphoric devices can now be considered unremarkable because they have been already used so frequently in literature, such as sentences like “[The word] slipped through his mouth like milk” [2013: 32] or “time’s as slippery as oil” [2013: 37]. Moreover, Kent’s use of symbols, including crows, is far from subtle.

Burial Rites may have got certain things right, such as the atmosphere, but it is also a problematic novel, which is not as enlightening as one would have hoped. The end result is that there is this realisation that the heroine’s actions were neither wise nor sympathetic, and the story is so predictable as to border pointlessness.

*SPOILER ALERT*

The important feature of the novel is that Agnes should appear sympathetic to us and we should all be sad about her tragic fate. However, on the face of it, her so-called injustice is not as tragic as it may appear. The truth is that Agnes was involved in the murder of the two men through her knowledge of the crime, and as Seneca once put it – those who do not prevent a crime, encourage it. She has also taken certain active steps in the story to bring the death of the person about (because “mercy” killing is still a killing “in act, if not in mind”). This is not to say that the heroine deserved her punishment (and she could not have stopped the perpetrator), but just to point out that these factors reduce the sensational nature of the story and maybe even sympathy for Agnes. After all, she was closely involved with the man who committed the crime and was found at the crime scene. It is an unfortunate turn of events for Agnes, but her complicity through knowledge is undeniable, and she did state in the novel that she simply refused to believe that Fridrik would kill [Kent, 2013: 298]. Moreover, she chose to be around Fridrik because of “loneliness”. These decisions, coming from the heroine who is described as “intelligent” in the story, just beggar belief.

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