Written by: Hannah Kent
Audiobook read by: Morven Christie
Synopsis: Set against Iceland's stark landscape, Hannah Kent brings to vivid life the story of Agnes, who, charged with the brutal murder of her former master, is sent to an isolated farm to await execution.
Horrified at the prospect of housing a convicted murderer, the family at first avoids Agnes. Only Tóti, a priest Agnes has mysteriously chosen to be her spiritual guardian, seeks to understand her. But as Agnes's death looms, the farmer's wife and their daughters learn there is another side to the sensational story they've heard.
Riveting and rich with lyricism, BURIAL RITES evokes a dramatic existence in a distant time and place, and asks the question, how can one woman hope to endure when her life depends upon the stories told by others?
“Any woman knows that a thread, once woven, is fixed in place; the only way to smooth a mistake is to let it all unravel.”
There are some books that I know I should read, but also know that I never will. Sometimes it's because of how much they're hyped. Sometimes it's the fact that I feel like I have to, rather than want to. Sometimes I just can't muster any excitement for them, even when they sound like they were basically written for me specifically. In other words when it comes to books I am a fickle bitch. Burial Rites was always going to be one of those books. I had heard people wax lyrical about it for months and it ticked so many boxes. Australian female author (check), set in a country I'm interested in but know very little about (check), female protagonist (check), beautiful prose (check), bloggers I respect loved it (check). But meh. And as usual I ended up downloading and then listening to it on a whim and realised once again how much my fickleness withholds from me. Because this book is sensational.
Burial Rites is Hannah Kent's debut novel and it really isn't fair. Where are all these young writers who have their authorial voices sorted out at 28 coming from? Have they just been placed on earth to make me feel like crap because I'm still not together enough to make myself breakfast in the morning* or do my dishes within a reasonable time frame? And just for an extra twist of the knife, she's also the founder and publishing director of an Australian literary journal called Kill Your Darlings. But even though she makes me feel like I have accomplished absolutely nothing in life and never will, I can't hold it against her because this novel is gorgeous. Just utterly, utterly gorgeous.
The book is based on the events that surrounded the final execution in Iceland in 1929. Leading up to her execution, Agnes Magnúsdóttir is sent to a nearby farm to live and work with a family and receive religious guidance from a young priest, Tóti. Her arrival is, understandably, upsetting to the family and their neighbours. She arrives surrounded by whispers, questions about her past, her relationship with the man that she's supposed to have killed and the likelihood of her actually being the devil fill the air as she silently tries to make her way through the day. As the reader we get insight into her mind, how she feels about their whispers and why she's afraid of speaking more than she has to, but to everyone else her silence makes her standoffish and terrifying.
Hannah Kent paints a haunting picture of Icelandic society, one where a woman who strays from the traditional path, who wishes to have a life of her own and to be educated and heard, is automatically labelled as someone to be feared. Agnes came from inauspicious origins, born to a mother who wasn't able to care for her and followed by bad luck and strife all through her childhood. She's at once a realist to her situation in life and also an eternal optimist, sure that something better lays over the horizon for her. Which only makes hearing her recount her story all the more heartbreaking, because we know things don't look up for her. Or if they do, that high doesn't last for long.
As I listened to the audiobook I did feel a few pangs of regret that I wasn't reading the eloquent prose with my eyes, but that didn't last long. I don't know whether Morven Christie has narrated many novels and I don't know if I'd necessarily say she'd suit a great deal of books but she was insurmountable here. Her narration dripped with the emotion instilled in the writing. She gave Agnes life and weight and I listened to the vast majority of the book on the verge of tears because Christie's narration was just so real. I've read that the book is being made into a film and apparently Jennifer Lawrence was rumoured for the role of Agnes at one point, but I would wholeheartedly support casting Christie in the role because as far as I'm concerned she is Agnes.
There isn't a great deal of information online about Agnes Magnúsdóttir that isn't tied to Hannah Kent's research of this subject, but it is clear that this is a woman and a story that Hannah Kent felt a connection to and one which she felt she had a responsibility to tell. It's a look into a world that is foreign to us in many ways, but the story of a woman out of place is one many of us can relate to. I could write more about how exquisite this book is, but I think this is one of the cases where you really have to read it for yourself.
*Except coffee. Coffee is my breakfast. Coffee is also often my lunch and afternoon snack. And sometimes my dinner.