How can such a beautifully constructed book be so grim?

Burial Rites, by Hannah Kent

This Book Club discussion is lead by Vivienne Beddoe. 

Burial Rites is available for $22.95 via Booktopia.

burial-ritesI volunteered to lead a discussion for our Starts at Sixty Book Club on  the book,  Burial Rites and then immediately began wondering why…

It is a popular book. Its young author, Hannah Kent has received remarkable critical and financial acclaim. It is to be the basis of a movie. All I really knew was that it was based on a true story in Iceland in the 19th century and told the story of a condemned murderess in her last year of life. As the setting and the plot did not appeal to me, there had to be something about the book that others saw in it, that perhaps I would come to see.

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In 1828, Agnes Magnusdottir was accused of and tried for the bashing murder of Natan Ketilsson and Petur Jonsoon. There were two others co-accused.

As was the custom, as no suitable place was available to hold Agnes, she was sent to stay with a local magistrate in a rural area with his family comprising his extremely sick wife, Margret and two teenage daughters, Steina and Lauga. Not unnaturally, they are all alarmed at this new servant, but are not in a position to refuse accommodating her. There are also other servants on the small holding. The story takes place in 1829. On 12th January, 1830 Agnes was beheaded with an axe, the last person in Iceland to be executed.

This is a beautifully constructed novel. The author does not play with the historical facts, but rather with the inner life of the characters. There are 13 chapters. Archival sources are used as epigraphs for each. I found this gave a richness and authenticity to the book. Since the ending is not in doubt, Kent concentrates on having the reader come to understand why Agnes is in the position she is in. The story is told from differing viewpoints. Sometimes Agnes, sometimes the omniscient author, sometimes Agnes talking to Totti, the young minister whose task it is to prepare Agnes for her execution.

The setting is vividly realised. This is a small community living in grinding poverty and chilling cold. The seasons follow Agnes mood as she has hopes in spring of some reprieve through to the winter of her execution. The small-mindedness and fear of the small community is set down in detail. The rhythms of the farming year in all its brutality and richness are an important part of the book.

The story of Agnes’s life and its complexities are revealed as she reflects on her life and as she talks to Totti, and as she gradually finds a form of friendship and comfort with Margret. Her life was a hard one. She was abandoned by her mother and her placement as a farm girl led to rejection. The images of stones and ravens are ever present.

This is a grim book. There is no reprieve. The society and the landscape are unforgiving. It is however, absorbing and while I’m not entirely convinced it was worth the hype I look forward to Hannah Kent’s next book.

Have you read Burial Rites by Hannah Kent? What thoughts did you have?