Burial rites by Hannah Kent
Collected thoughts from the Book Club 09/07/2015
Burial rites is set in 19th century Iceland and is a fictional account of the true story of Agnes Magnusdottir, the last woman to be publicly beheaded in Iceland. Whilst Agnes is waiting her execution she is place in the care of a couple Jon and Magret, The family are deeply resentful of the charge place on them and feel threatened by her presence but over time each of them come to trust and appreciate her. The story is evenly paced with no great surprises – you know where it is going! The writing has many poetic turns of phrase particularly the sections written from Agnes’ viewpoint, and yet also conveys the pragmatic, steady rhythm of life ground out in a harsh environment where life is fragile, and the community effort and celebration at important junctures such as harvest.
Reverend ‘Toti’ is charged with bringing her to God, and gradually she tells her story to him. Agnes comes over as an intelligent woman who has been trapped by circumstances from the moment she was born. She was abandoned by her mother and brought up as a pauper in a patriarchial society where women who didn’t conform to narrow expectations were seen as threatening. She was continually fighting images of her created by others, her story not heard (a very modern theme). Servants had little control over their own lives even having to seek their employer’s permission to marry.
The landscape is a separate character in the book – it is imposing – and the descriptions are often very visceral: “the dark intestine of the river”; “seaweed … look like the hair of the drowned”, but also beautiful . Although Agnes could theoretically have chosen to escape the farm she acknowledges that to leave would be certain death because of the hostility of the environment. When Agnes finally tells her account of what happened Magret expresses her horror that Natan turned her outside in the winter. The individual farmsteads came over as claustrophobic places where individuals had little privacy – and yet each one was isolated from its neighbours and journeys particularly in the winter were not to be undertaken lightly.
The Icelandic sagas are said to underlie and inform the book but not being familiar with these tales this rather passed us by.
When we started to discuss the book what came out was the surprisingly complex themes underlying what on the surface was a fairly simple narrative. The author says in an interview “I also hope that readers are prompted to consider the fallibility of any form of history or storytelling composed by a human capable of bias, self-interest and the influence of prevailing ideologies. For every story we hear, there is another side that may be as equally, subjectively true”.
Other good reads:
Halldor Laxness (1946) Independent people.
This book also portrays the harshness of life in Icelandic farming communities. It follows the tribulations of a stubborn sheep farmer determined to be financially independent. “Marvellously fluent and unaffected … one of the most original and skillfully written novels of the 20th century”. Times Literary Supplement.
Laxness was a winner of the Nobel prize for literature.
Jane Smiley, (2005) The Sagas of the Icelanders
The sagas are part of the inspiration behind Burial Rites. Jane Smiley’s version comes with many good reviews:
“One of the great marvels of World Literature … this is a dream come true” Ted Hughes
“A testimony to the human spirit’s ability not only to endure what fate may send it but to be renewed by the experience” Seamus Heaney
In a different genre Iceland is the backdrop in the crime novels of Yrsa Sigurdardottir, described as the Queen of ‘Nordic noir’
Picador (2013) Hannah Kent answers reading group questions. http://www/picador.com/blog/august-2013/hannah-kent-answers-reading-group-questions [Accessed 10/07/2015].