This is a book to devour in enormous gulps. When you do come up for air, fill yourself with black tea and then settle back into your armchair, to be borne aloft once more.
Burial Rites by Hannah Kent is a bittersweet and melancholy tale of a woman named Agnes Magnusdottir. Set in Iceland in 1829 the book showcases Agnes’ life and all of its shimmering promise and how her life has been tragically hemmed in on all sides by poverty, circumstances and bad luck.
Inspired by a true story, Hannah Kent has woven a remarkable tale that is totally bewitching and magical in how it draws you in. The heroine Agnus Magnusdottir is condemned to death for her part in the brutal murder of a well-liked local man Natan Ketilsson.
As a ‘dead woman walking’, Agnes is placed with a local family until her death sentence is carried out by way of an axe fall. She is allocated a local priest as her council to (in the eyes of the law) redeem her and prepare her for the afterlife. A young and tender man of the cloth called Toti with whom she confides her secrets and pieces together the puzzle of how she came to be in her condemned position. The presence of Agnes in the village in turns disturbs people and in other cases comforts the local people as she awaits her fate.
The writing is just sublime. But what I find even more remarkable about this book is that author Hannah Kent is from the land of tropical beaches and sunburnt deserts – Australia. A keen polarity of opposites exists here in terms of setting. It’s a massive testament to Hannah Kent’s writing abilities that she can transpose her imagination so thoroughly from the bright, bone-dry, hot and wealthy Australia in the 21st Century to what is geographically and temporally a place that could be in a different universe– Iceland’s ice floes, long winters and poverty-hardened populace in the 1820’s.
Shortlisted for the Stella Prize 2014 and Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2014, this is probably the best book I’ve read all year. I was going to say ‘Australian book’ but it definitely bares no trace of its author’s Australian origins in both narrative and the writing style.
Burial Rites is an instant timeless classic and has found a cult following with friends and families recommending it to each other, in the same way as that monstrously popular classic ‘Eat Pray Love’ by Elizabeth Gilbert had a ground swell of popularity before it became a bestseller.
Gritty, dark and haunting. You can practically taste rusty blood in your mouth as you read. This one will stay with you for years after you’ve read it.
Five out of five stars.
Hannah Kent speaks about her book on Icelandic TV
In the interview Hannah reveals that: Hollywood has bought the rights to the book and Jennifer Laurence has expressed interest in the lead role. After difficulties writing the execution scene, she had a hyper-realistic dream and then was able to write the ending.