Burial Rites by Hannah Kent
Published by Picador 2013
(Review first published July, 2013)
When a debut novel comes as lauded as Burial Rites – including a recommendation from Geraldine Brooks as cover garnish – it’s hard to resist the temptation to see what all the fuss is about. For those who’ve been preserved in an Icelandic glacier for the last three months the novel is set in early 19th century Iceland and is based on Agnes Magnúsdóttir – the last women to be executed there. To say Agnes was beheaded in 1830 for her part in the brutal murder of two men is not giving the story away, for they are the bare facts Kent launched her epic research project with – but more on that in a moment.
My initial interest in the novel was sparked by a piece Kent wrote about her research and writing process for Kill Your Darlings, of which she is deputy editor. Burial Rites was the result of her PhD in creative writing, and for anyone engaged in a PhD or DCA with the aim of producing a publishable novel (e.g. myself), then success stories such as Kent’s are a subject of great envy interest. Given then the marketing hype (including an episode of Australian Story) and the snippets of praise from famous authors gracing its evocative cover – 'Burial Rites is an accomplished gem, its prose as crisp and sparkling as its northern setting' – my expectations were mountain-top high. To say I didn’t make the summit of those expectations is probably the best way of framing my view of Burial Rites, but the journey was still worthwhile and there are plenty of good things to say about it.
But let’s start from the ground up and the promise of ‘prose as crisp and sparkling as its northern setting’. The overuse of adverbs is of issue here (more so in the third person narrative sections). Quickly, slowly, quietly, nervously, casually – they’re used often and often unnecessarily. A ‘less is more’ approach to adverbs is the stuff of creative writing 101 advice (choose a stronger verb!). Yes, I’m being nitpickety, but for a novel that passed through a PhD supervisor and an editor, you have to wonder how ‘whispered quietly’ got through to the keeper. Having said that, Kent knows how to ‘evoke’ (even strongly evoke) and her establishment of time and place is impeccable. Resonances of Kári Gíslasson’s memoir The Promise of Iceland in Kent’s depictions of the relentless Icelandic setting, which is to say its contrasting harshness and sleek cold beauty, is all-sensory and ever present. Kent conjures both exteriors and interior landscapes with dexterity, lending gravitas and a sense of authenticity to the setting, both historically and geographically.
Historical authenticity is the crux of this novel and Kent’s research is nothing short of thorough in the way a dog licks it bowl. Kent describes the book as ‘speculative biography’ and in this regard she follows a marked trend for filling in – that is, fictionalising – fragmentary stories of historical figures, in particular notorious women. This appropriation and resurrection of women’s voices from history (filtered through the inescapable lens of a present, post second-wave feminist perspective) is not unproblematic – and is worthy of further discussion beyond this book – and Kent’s (re)writing of Agnes Magnúsdóttir’s story does not escape these issues.
Namely, while a sympathetic betrayal of Agnes is to be expected, Kent’s narrative interpolation between the known facts of the actual murder didn’t ring true for me. Kent takes care to make Agnes an enigmatic, but likable, character and a reliable narrator. She does this quite artfully by alternating between first person and third person narration, so that Agnes’ exoneration in the denouement of her story (to her final confidant, Margret) is not only expected, but wanted. But is it accurate? It seems very unlikely. At least in the way Kent decided it happened. In terms of Burial Rites being ‘speculative biography’, the inclusion of real letters and historical documents (not to mention descriptions of everyday activities) certainly lends authenticity to the biographical element of Agnes’ story, but the emphasis should definitely be on ‘speculative’, perhaps even fanciful, when it comes to Agnes’ recount of her former lover’s murder. I can’t help thinking that just because a woman was convicted (and executed) for murder we assume history must have got it wrong. This ‘setting the record straight’ is also condescending – not only for the aforementioned reason, but because it affirms women of history to be victims without allowing them the possibility of being ‘wicked’ either.
This thorniness of blurring of fact and fiction in this context is perhaps something for academics to ponder at length in obscure journals, rather than a point of merit to be discussed in a book review, so I will say no more about it – it is a novel to be read for enjoyment, after all. And on that level, Kent has pitched her book bang in the middle of the Tim Winton zone – that sweet spot between popular and literary fiction (that will also get you a $300,000 advance). Not so highbrow as to put off the less cultured reader, but literary enough to attract those who consider themselves discerning (Fifty Shades of Grey ne’er would sully their eyes). Plenty of reviews have noted the ‘lyricism’ and ‘poeticism’, and the ‘measured’ quality of Kent’s prose, but as one reviewer on Goodreads points out ‘there is something altogether too safe about it. it's (sic) the kind of writing that knows it will get a good reception, because it's the kind of writing that plays by all the rules’. I couldn’t agree more and this is why, stylistically, I found the writing a tad laboured (adverbs!), even derivative in some ways.
What I did find effective, however, was the switching of narrative voices. This structuring device created engagement with the primary characters and set up an almost episodic rhythm to the book, as well as providing the confessional template for Agnes to retrospectively tell her life story. The first person narration in Agnes’s voice was the strongest aspect of the book, and indeed, where Kent’s prose did ‘sparkle’. I was struck by the emotional truth of her characters and for one so young (in novelist years, at least) – Kent is only 26 – there is a maturity to her writing and her ability to understand her characters that is quite remarkable. My hope is that, as she matures as a novelist, her writing style becomes more robust, a bit riskier and more distinct, because she is clearly a talent to watch and knows how to weave the components of a compelling tale together.