Tuesday, May 27, 2014

A Dark Love Letter to Iceland

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent
Reviewed by Diane K. M.
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Brrr! This wintry novel about a woman accused in the 1828 murders of two men in northern Iceland was filled with shiver-inducing descriptions of the harsh, yet beautiful, rural landscape. Even though I was reading this on a warm summer day, the chilly language made me think about reaching for a shawl.

Hannah Kent, who is from Australia, says she became interested in the true story of Agnes Magnusdottir when she traveled to Iceland in 2003. Agnes was the last person in the country to be executed. She was beheaded in 1830 for her role in the murders of Natan Ketilsson and Petur Jonsson. Kent researched the facts of the case and has written a compelling version of what might have happened while Agnes was awaiting her execution.

Kent's prose is lovely and so descriptive that you feel as if you are in that remote Icelandic village. The novel is a bit slow to start, but picks up when Agnes is transferred to a farmer's home to await her fate, and a compassionate reverend starts to visit her. Agnes is reticent at first, but eventually opens up and discusses her past and her relationship with the murdered men.

"I remain quiet. I am determined to close myself to the world, to tighten my heart and hold what has not yet been stolen from me. I cannot let myself slip away. I will hold what I am inside, and keep my hands tight around all the things I have seen and heard, and felt. The poems composed as I washed and scythed and cooked until my hands were raw. The sagas I know by heart. I am sinking all I have left and going underwater. If I speak, it will be in bubbles of air. They will not be able to keep my words for themselves. They will see the whore, the madwoman, the murderess, the female dripping blood into the grass and laughing with her mouth choked with dirt. They will say 'Agnes' and see the spider, the witch caught in the webbing of her own fateful weaving. They might see the lamb circled by ravens, bleating for a lost mother. But they will not see me. I will not be there."

While overall I liked the book, one of my complaints was that Kent would switch between third-person and Agnes' first-person perspective, and some of the changes were so jarring and abrupt (with no visible page break) that I sometimes had to backtrack and reread paragraphs to make sense of what I was reading. This is Kent's first novel, and this kind of structural messiness should have been fixed by an editor. I think the whole story could have been efficiently told from third person, OR the shifts between the perspectives should have been telegraphed better. Kent does get credit for including a pronunciation guide for Icelandic letters at the beginning of the book, which was helpful.

But this feels like quibbling in what was a mostly enjoyable read. I liked the relationship between Agnes and the reverend, and how the feelings of the farmer's family, which were at first hostile to hosting a prisoner, slowly changed over time as Agnes proved herself a useful worker. I also liked the glimpse into the workings of a 19th-century village and the differences between the homes of the poor farmers and those of the wealthy commissioner. I would recommend "Burial Rites" to fans of historical fiction or anyone who would appreciate this "dark love letter" to Iceland.

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