I would like to say that it’s not often that I come across a book that’s just totally mind-blowingly amazing, but it seems to be happening more and more often. Maybe it’s because I’m just getting better at picking good books to read, or maybe I’m more receptive to different writing styles and genres and content. Perhaps a bit of both, or something else? Who knows?
What I do know is that ‘Burial Rites’ (by Hannah Kent) is one such mind-blowingly amazing novel. A colleague recommended this book to me back around the time of it’s initial release. I was quite intrigued by it at the time, since it seemed so different and unique. The patriotic part of me likes that it’s written by an Australian author; the worldly part of me loves that it’s set in Iceland, a place whose culture and history I know very little about.
I will admit, however, that part of the reason I put off reading ‘Burial Rites’ for so long was because of all the Icelandic names for characters and places, which I thought might make it a bit difficult to read smoothly. Turns out, I didn’t really have anything to be worried about, since there’s a pronunciation guide at the start, and their words are easy enough to read – at least, it didn’t interfere with the flow of the narrative.
‘Burial Rites’ is actually Hannah Kent’s debut novel, which just adds to my amazement. Her writing is practically flawless, and the way she constructs the characters, the settings, the story – it’s just brilliant. What I really liked about ‘Burial Rites’ is that it alternates between third person and first person (from the point of view of Agnes Magnusdottir, the protagonist), and it’s done in a way that feels like it’s really adding depth and intrigue to the story. It’s sort of like getting inside her mind, like she’s telling you these secrets, and then you’re back to being an observer. Hmm… I’m probably not doing it justice with that description.
Interestingly, the novel is actually based on real people and real events, and even features real places. This actually makes me want to visit Iceland so that I can see all of these places and learn more about the history. Kent’s story of Agnes has sparked my fascination with Iceland, so it’s easy to see how Kent was inspired to share this story in the first place. Something else that I quite appreciate is that Kent isn’t overly descriptive about the landscape and weather. And for a place where it seems to basically be cold and snowing 99% of the time, it would have been easy to get repetitive and/or overly creative with metaphors.
In her author’s note at the end of the novel, Kent mentions that some of the publications she read as part of her research portrayed Agnes as “an inhumane witch”. However, I actually found myself sympathising with Agnes for a lot of the book. Perhaps she was innocent…?
This brings me to another point that I want to write about, but it is kind of a spoiler, so if you don’t want to know anything about the ending before reading it for yourself, please do not continue to read this (until you’ve gone and read ‘Burial Rites’, of course). You have been warned!
As the story nears its inevitable conclusion, Agnes gradually reveals what really happened on the night of the murder, and the reader is told more about her relationship with Natan, one of the victims. The hints start earlier in the novel, but as more of Agnes’s story is revealed, I found myself believing in her innocence, and hoping that her death sentence would be revoked. I almost believed it would be possible for her to have a “happily ever after”, but it was just not meant to be. As I reflected on this after finishing the novel, I realised that “good” endings, or satisfying endings, often are not very happy endings. If Agnes had been acquitted, would I have felt cheated of a “good” ending for the sake of the characters’ happiness? (“Characters” plural, because the Kornsa family she was with and (Assistant) Reverend Toti all cared about her in the end.) So it’s kind of the “best” ending, even if it is a sad one.
I reckon I like ‘Burial Rites’ a lot more than I’d expected to when I first added it to my to-be-read list. I would like to read it again one day, and certainly wouldn’t mind having my own copy (I got this copy from the library). I kind of just want to go around telling everyone to read it.