Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Australian Women Writers: Hannah Kent's Burial Rites

This review is part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013

Burial Rites: coming ready or not!

Hannah Kent's first novel Burial Rites has captured the imagination of potential readers in Australia with long waiting lists for reserve copies at local libraries. It is an ambitious and substantial offering set in an unlikely time and location.

We are taken to rural Iceland in 1829 where Agnes Magnusdottir awaits her execution for a double murder. One of the victims, Nathan Ketilsson, was her employer and lover at the time.

It is based on a true story that Hannah has researched in detail. If you're expecting a crime thriller, forget it. The unfolding of Agnes' part in the deaths certainly presents a mystery of sorts, though none of the revelations are particularly surprising or startling.

Her developing relationships are key to her transformation. She stays with district officer Jon Jonsson’s family, awaiting her fate. There she talks with a young assistant rector Toti whom she has requested as her spiritual advisor. In addition to his role as ‘confessor’, Jon's wife Margret and one of their two daughters Steina, help to bring Agnes out of herself.

We also get first person accounts of her life past and present. From these, we learn more about the factors that have driven both her inner-life and her working-life.

Agnes is literate and well-informed for a farm worker in a remote northern part of a very remote country. The rural setting plays an important part in the novel. After her degrading imprisonment, Agnes gradually revives as she resumes her life as a farmworker.
I feel drunk with summer and sunlight. I want to seize fistfuls of sky and eat them.
Of course, this stay is not meant to last. As summer slowly fades to autumn and finally the symbolic and literal winter, the landscape and the weather reinforce the harsh and dark nature of this tale.
Snow lay over the valley like linen, like a shroud waiting for the dead body of sky that slumped overhead.
Life in the miserable interiors of the farmhouses, where much of the story takes place, underscores the bleakness of their rustic existence.

On top of this, the illnesses of Margret and Toti are a pervasive reminder that violent death is not the real challenge for these communities. Death and religion are ever-present as the Icelandic Burial Hymn emphasizes:
O Grave, where is thy triumph?
O Death, where is thy sting?
Come, when thou wilt, and welcome!
Secure in Christ I sing.
But this is not a morality tale. Good (or god) does not necessarily trump evil. Redemption is far more elusive. We are left to wonder what it means to be ‘ready’ for our burial rites.

However, there is a villain in the person of district commissioner Bjorn Blondal, who could sit comfortably in judgment with the self-righteous in Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible. He is someone who “wants to set an example”. Blondal has much to protect as Toti’s visit to his property reveals.

The first two-thirds unfold slowly but it is worth the effort. Its powerful concluding chapters are both disturbing and uplifting.

Life and death – coming ready or not.

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