Burial Rites (2013) is the debut novel by Australian author Hannah Kent (film rumoured). The novel seeks to retell the ‘true’ story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir who was accused of acting in the murder of two men, Natan Ketilsson and Petur Jonsson. A story that seeks to reflect bleak narrative in bleak setting, the retelling Kent chooses to built for Agnes is void of much hope, instead serving as a window-in-time to show the unique paltry of Icelandic life, and to reveal Kent’s depth of research, living in Iceland.
Judging from Goodreads reviews, (by majority, glowing 4 and 5 stars), found the ‘stark’ nature of this book (desolate scenes, hopelessness and hate) beautiful or alluring, immersive even, yet there was an equal bleakness manifest in the characters. In Burial Rites, events roil within the realms of human control, yet nobody seeks to impact their progress. People never attempt change their stations in life. The Reverend fails to fulfill his role, unable to theologically save or comfort Agnes. The family at Kornsa fail to take any action to defend Agnes’ innocence, though they make it clear her looming execution is unjust. Nathan (and Agnes) know Fridrik Sigurdsson is violent and scheming, yet nobody takes defensive measures against him. These characters are victims of the game, rather than players — perhaps a technique intended to reflect the ‘truth’ of Agnes’ story, but makes for frustrating reading. Won’t the characters just do something?
Most overridingly, Agnes’ retelling paints her as a passive character who is hopelessly overrun by romance, beyond reason or self-preservation. Her love for Natan cripples her sensibility, though her character is supposedly pragmatic and independent. This is a portrayal that can be only partially understood in the chosen context (1829, Iceland), where women’s lives were likely oppressive and harsh beyond comprehension, and choices were limited. However, Agnes’ portrayal feeds back damagingly into the ‘women’s fiction’ genre, into which this book tends to fall, whether justifiably or not. One cannot accept protagonists who are shaped and built only by their relationships to men without a constructive premise linked to this fallacy. Equally frustrating, this is a portrayal of Agnes that Kent has actively constructed. In the book’s acknowledgements, Kent clarifies that Agnes has had many different ‘versions’ or characteristics, (a witch, a wench, an exploited worker etc.), a palimpsest of folk and historical retellings (and superstitions). To choose this passive, ‘victimly’ portrayal from that plethora of ‘Agnesses’ seems an odd choice. It would have been preferable to read of a woman who has independent thoughts, goals, and interests, but perhaps that is romantic of me, and goes against the grain of reality for a poverty-stricken woman in 1800s Iceland. Agnes’ thoughts and reputation seem at odds with her quiet, subservient mask in the Kornsa household. The Icelandic superstitions that are tangled up in gender and cultural roles (especially those of women) seemed to be overlooked for the sake of keeping the book ‘sparse’. It seems the meat of interest in the narrative would be the rich practical lives of rural Icelanders of the time, and the accompanying, crippling social mores that hem these Icelanders in. These social conventions should be the thing to make Agnes’ unjust execution into an unstoppable steam train of progress, rather than a slow-burning fall into apathetic, apologetic, anemic characters, who do nothing to right the course of action in the narrative.
Ultimately, the story has points for readability and an ‘honestly’ in Kent’s style, but Burial Rites leaves too many threads undone, and too many opportunities missed, to feel the story was ever done justice.