Title: Burial Rites
Author: Hannah Kent
Historical fiction isn’t something I’m naturally drawn to, the last hundred years or so interest me but before then I’m, not uninterested, but more interested in novels where the writer doesn’t have to spend a significant amount of their effort bringing another place and age to life. Wolf Hall, interesting though it was to read and surprisingly compulsive though I found it, hasn’t stayed with me to the extent many more poorly written books do.
So I was surprised when Burial Rites, a novel based on the life of the last woman to be executed in Iceland, started eating my entire day of leave. Hannah Kent’s characters are so real, so appallingly and brilliantly human, that the setting feels almost beside the point.
As most books I read set in the early 1800s are set in middle to upper-class England (Brontes, Austen, Eliot etc), it’s probably normal that what also struck me was the huge difference in conditions. Certainly I didn’t expect the lower classes in Iceland of the time to be living in splendor, but the stark poverty and gloom pervades the whole book. The cold, damp and grime of the place makes the book best read curled up with a blanket, not to mention hot tea and a bright light. It fuels the sympathy we would probably naturally have for Agnes – accused murderer she may be, but the more her life is filled out the less we’re able to place her so squarely in the box her peers have placed around her.
Agnes has been hemmed in, not all at once by the conviction which happens before Burial Rites even begins, but slowly – her chances in life low from the point of her birth, her intelligence and ability to work hard little shield against the facts of her life. She is poor, she was born out of wedlock, she is a woman, she lives in a time and place where few have the money or inclination to indulge in charity – a happy ending for her was never particularly likely, though her life didn’t have to take such a dramatically bad route as it eventually does. At one point Agnes notes that if she had been “young, dumb and pretty” events may have unfolded differently, and certainly the general feel is that being smart has been more a burden to her than a blessing.
Burial Rites is Agnes’s story, but the author has also taken care to show the effect her pre-execution stay has on the family she’s lodged with, the village surrounding them, and the young priest charged with bringing her closer to god before her death. There’s little in the way of grand gestures, of sweeping good or evil, but there are small kindnesses and occasional maliciousness. The impression I was left with was of a small, limited world – perfectly fleshed out, both characters and place.
In short, I both enjoyed reading it and have a feeling it will stay with me as well.
Recommend at work?: Definitely, interesting topic, good read, and should appeal to those who enjoy Geraldine Brooks particularly, and popular literary fiction more broadly.