A ‘Dark Love Letter to Iceland’: Hannah Kent, Burial Rites

burialritesI’ve gotten pretty cynical about book blurbs, but when I see a cover adorned with high praise from not one but two of the smartest readers I know, how can I resist the temptation to read it for myself? (In fact, it’s probably because I’d seen Steve’s and Sam’s reviews in the fall that the title caught my eye in the first place, though they both write so darned many reviews that I didn’t specifically remember that Burial Rites was among them until I looked closer.) We don’t share all the same reading tastes, so it was still a bit of a gamble; I’m sure they will be relieved to know that I too thought Burial Rites was very good, so they retain their credibility! 🙂

Burial Rites is based on a real incident that took place in Iceland in 1828: a double-murder for which three people — a man and two women — were tried and condemned. One woman, Sigga, was pardoned; the other two, Agnes and Fridrik, were beheaded. Kent has researched the people, events, and locale extensively, but she has the gift of telling the story so that even though the documents from the case punctuate the narrative, it does not feel researched but lived. Agnes is her focus, and the novel begins when Agnes is moved from her primitive confinement to a farm where she is to be held in custody until her execution. The family charged with keeping her greets her with suspicion and hostility at first, but as they live and work together through a long hard winter, they come to see her as a woman with a story of her own, not just as a murderess.

Agnes tells that story herself (the novel alternates between her first-person narrative and the omniscient narrator). It’s a grim story of a lonely, love-starved life:

Oh, my foster-mother is dead and my own mother is gone. And I sit on the floor, my legs buckled with the pure, ripe grief of an orphan, and the wind cries for me because my tongue cannot. It screams and screams and I sit on the packed earth floor, hard with cold, and smell the fish-heads, sickening, lacing the bland scent of winter with their stench of salt and dried bone.

She asks to see a young priest, Tóti, who becomes the “final audience to her life’s lonely narrative.” He is told by the local administrator, Björn Blöndal, who is keen to make an example of Agnes, that “she has nothing that you need to hear unless it is a confession.” But Tóti believes he can serve her best by listening, and in doing so he brings her at least the comfort of having been heard — not just by him but, inevitably in the close quarters of the small farm house, by her custodians. In the end, in fact, it’s the farmer’s wife Margrét who hears her “confession,” or rather her account of what really happened the night of the murders.

It’s predictable that, incrementally, her audience (including us) comes to believe, not just that she’s human and thus deserving of our sympathy, but that she does not deserve the death she is not, in the end, to be spared. Kent strips her of any pathos, though: she may in some sense be innocent, but as Steve says, the revelations unfold with “an utter lack of sentiment.” Agnes herself is both reticent and fierce, with nothing of the damsel in distress about her. Accustomed to live without hope or comfort, she longs for her appointment with death:

I am sick with finality. It is like a punch in the heart, the fact of my sentence alongside the ordinariness of days at the farm. Perhaps it would have been better if they had left me at Stóra-Borg. I might have starved to death. I would be mud-slick, stuffed to the guts with cold and hopelessness, and my body might know it was doomed and give up on its own. That would be better than idly winding wool on a snowy day, waiting for someone to kill me.

But when it comes, it is not better than the waiting, and Agnes’s spiraling panic is wracking:

You will be lost. There is no final home, there is no burial, there is only a constant scattering, a thwarted journey that takes you everywhere without offering you a way home, for there is no home, there is only this cold island and your dark self spread thinly upon it until you take up the wind’s howl and mimic its loneliness you are not going home you are gone silence will claim you, suck your life down into its black waters and churn out stars that might remember you, but if they do not they will not say, they will not say, and if no one will say your name you are forgotten I am forgotten.

The jumps from third- to first-person narration are sometimes awkward, but it’s compelling to watch the gradual convergence of what we know of Agnes, from her own words, and what those living with her discover. As the execution approaches, there’s a different kind of drama as these perspectives grow apart again — having now shared her story, they can only stand by helplessly as she travels towards her fate.

In her acknowledgements, Kent says that she intended Burial Rites as a “dark love letter to Iceland,” and in that ambiguous goal I think she has succeeded: the novel reflects in its subject and its language the harsh, dramatic landscape it depicts. Iceland appears to be having something of a vogue (or maybe it just seems that way to me because I just read The Faraway Nearby), but this is hardly the language of tourist brochures:

Now comes the darkening sky and a cold wind that passes right through you, as though you are not there, it passes through you as if you do not care whether you are alive or dead, for you will be gone and the wind will still be there, licking the grass flat upon the ground, not caring whether the soil is at a freeze or thaw, for it will freeze and thaw again, and soon your bones, now hot with blood and thick-juicy with marrow, will be dry and brittle and flake and freeze and thaw with the weight of the dirt upon you, and the last moisture of your body will be drawn up to the surface by the grass, and the wind will come and knock it down and push you back against the rocks, or it will scrape you up under its nails and take you out to sea in a wild screaming of snow.

In this particular moment the description is infused with Agnes’s desperation in the face of death, and with the prospect of her own imminent reintegration into that frozen landscape, but there’s a bleakness to the whole novel, and to the whole account it gives of the struggle to live in such a cold, wild, unforgiving place. Agnes may be a prisoner of the law, but all of the characters are hostage to the climate, to the dark and wind and snow that makes the roads impassable and life barely supportable for so much of the year. Kent excels at scene setting so that we feel both the physical and the psychic stress of the characters: the warmth of a hearth seems like the possibility of love, while emotional deprivation brings a chill that the warmest blanket can’t ease.

For all the novel’s strengths, though (and once I got my bearings in it, I read it with rapt attention) I ended up wondering if, beyond its compelling account of who, what, and how, it was driven by much of a thematic why. The setting and characters are well developed, especially Agnes but also Margrét, but as the elements of the plot work themselves out, I couldn’t detect a strong layer of meaning behind them. What do we learn from Agnes’s story — about Icelandic society or history, for instance, or about issues of guilt, innocence, and morality? Burial Rites didn’t seem to me to be about an idea: it’s about a story, about making the most of it. “This novel has been written,” Kent says in her author’s note, “to supply a more ambiguous portrayal of this woman,” who has, she notes, been portrayed by many sources as “an inhumane witch, stirring up murder.” The scope of the novel seems limited, though, to providing that alternative version of an individual character: there are only gestures towards systemic issues about, for instance, class or gender. Agnes believes she is treated less sympathetically than Sigga (her co-accused who is pardoned) because she is older and seems more knowing than Sigga. Inquiring into the case, Tóti hears that “she was always fixed on bettering herself.” But there’s no consistent sense that Agnes is really being punished for transgressing, either as a woman or a servant. The case as she tells it is intensely personal, and limited to the passions and jealousies of the small circle involved. Though its materials are rich, and richly rendered, it’s not a book that does something with them besides dramatize them.

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7 Responses to A ‘Dark Love Letter to Iceland’: Hannah Kent, Burial Rites

  1. Maybe this would make more sense as some kind of memoir or travel writing, actually. Some hybrid that can include these old stories alongside or within the love letter.

    • Rohan says:

      Overall it works pretty well as a novel, though. If she’d gone the memoir route with it, we might well be back complaining about another book that ends up being solipsistic at the expense of its subject! “My Life in Icelandic History”? “Iceland and Me”?

    • What I am really thinking of is a Sebald-like hybrid, with the author-like figure present but quite distant. Lots of room for the stories of other people.

      I should read the book, though – 19th century Iceland, all right!

      • Rohan Maitzen says:

        Ah: Sebald. Another in my ‘Humiliation’ deck. I have Austerlitz but have not managed it so far. Is there another place you’d recommend I start?

    • The Emigrants, to be sure that you are reading stories about people; The Rings of Saturn if you have always dreamed of taking a walking tour along the East Anglian coast. These books have now provided a model now for a number writers and artists about approaching a place or landscape with sensitivity to the painful parts of its history. That’s why I thought of it in this case.

      Actually, The Emigrants, definitely that one. The second chapter is a portrait of Sebald’s beloved grade school teacher, a classic, or future classic, of teacher literature.

  2. Dorian says:

    The Emigrants, for sure. And then Vertigo.

  3. Dorian says:

    Almost bought this in the Tel Aviv airport. Sounds like I should have.

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