On the 12th of January 1830, Agnes Magnusdottir and an accomplice were executed for murder – the last people to receive capital punishment in Iceland’s history. This relatively obscure piece of trivia is the subject of Hannah Kent’s brilliantly evocative novel Burial Rites, the 27 year-old’s much-talked about début. Plunged into a time and place unfamiliar to most readers, we follow convicted murderer Agnes as she spends the last months before her inevitable demise working as a maid in the home of a local government official. I briefly wondered at the plausibility of a convicted murderer being kept in a family home before remembering that, of course, it is all true – and therein lies the strength of this novel, skillfully blending fact and fiction to heighten its emotional impact.
Burial Rites emerged from the creative component of Kent’s doctorate thesis, and its academic genesis is plainly visible in the way it is littered with historical documents collated from the archives in Reykjavik. At first this technique seems clumsy – three different narrative voices crammed into the opening pages did not bode well – but its effectiveness soon becomes clear. The apparently disembodied voice of Agnes comes to the fore and converges with the narrative proper: skillfully incorporating letters and documents, Kent uses each thread to toy with our perception of the situation and of Agnes’ character.
Though the semi-factual nature of the novel means the ending is clear before the book is even begun, what is so effective is the way Kent subtly shapes the reader’s reaction to the inevitable – from an initial state of skeptical disinterest I suddenly found myself invested in Agnes’ fate, not sure when or how I had become so involved in the character.
Kent is a skilled story-teller, although occasionally let down by the quality of her prose. She is at her best when reflecting the sparse Icelandic countryside, and similes rooted in the local environment are a nice touch – but forays into lyricism tend to lapse into cliché. Though it becomes less obtrusive as the novel goes on, Kent’s style at first seems overly self-conscious, with ideas shoe-horned into her characters’ thoughts resulting in many jarring moments in an otherwise naturalistic depiction.
These quibbles aside, the overall impression is the evocation of a sinister, close-knit community; the almost imperceptible blending of fact and fiction; and the sense that one is bound up in the protagonist’s fate. Kent’s prose may lack the subtlety and polish of more experienced writers, but this is clearly a promising début.
Kent’s novel is published by Picador and is available here.