Review: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

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I don’t tend to read a lot of modern Australian writers. This is possibly the result of a literature degree which included a couple of subjects which fetishised Australian writers. I’m not sure if I blame Marcus Clarke or A.B. Facey more. Either way, those guys are the top of my list.

Australians are known as being pretty laid back and I feel this comes across in the writing style of modern Aussie authors. Plus there is also the obligatory obsession with the bleak, sparse and deadly Australian landscape (if you’re a white fella). I recently attempted both Geraldine Brooks’ The Story of the Book and Shirley Barrett’s Rush O! The Story of the Book left me cold and I was disappointed with Rush O! after the wonderful quirkiness that was Love Serenade.

It wasn’t until I was about a third of the way through the book when I learned that Hannah Kent is a compatriot. Reader, I nearly fell off my chair.

Burial Rites is the story of Agnes Magnusdottir the last person executed in Iceland. She is sentenced to death for her part in the brutal murder of her former master. This is a brilliant and evocative re-imagining of her story, written like a love letter to Iceland. Agnes may have been sentence to death, but there are no jails to hold her until her sentence can be carried out. So the District Officer calls for her to be held by one of the local government officials. Of course there is no where for her to be “held”, so she sleeps in the same rooms as the official, his wife and two daughters and works along side them on their farm.

Toti, the priest who Agnes has  chosen to be her spiritual guide through her last days, gains her trust which allows her to tell her side of the story. Toti and the farming family learn that there is much more to Agnes than her death sentence, and much more to her story than they could have ever imagined.

The telling of the story oscillates between third person past tense and first person chapters present tense, capturing Agnes’ story through the eyes of herself and those around her.  Normally I would find the change in tense particularly jarring, but the writing was so captivating I didn’t even notice until midway through the book.

The writing is beautiful, bringing to life the people, the harsh conditions and the whirling of Agnes’ mind as she plunges towards her last days, her life completely out of her control. Iceland and the cold could have been characters in the book – I feel as though I know them both a little better.

The reimagining of Agnes’ life is beautiful, harrowing and real.Kent’s research was extensive, and the book includes some versions of her source materials – Rosa’s poems being some of my favourites.

I listened to the audiobook, splendidly narrated by Morven Christie who captures he characters, particulary Agnes, and breathes life into them.

They said I must die. They said that I stole the breath from men and that now they must steal mine. I imagine then that we are all candle flames, greasy bright, fluttering in the darkness and the howl of the wind. And in the stillness of the room I hear footsteps, awful coming footsteps, coming to blow me out and send my life up and away from me in  grey wreath of smoke. I will vanish into the air and the night.

I’m very much looking forward to Kent’s new book The Good People due out in October this year.

5 out of 5 blood sausages.

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