‘Burial Rites’ by Hannah Kent

BurialRites

2013, 352 p.

The problem with coming to a much-talked-about book after the wave of publicity and interest has broken is that there’s not really much else left to say about it.  I’ve just dabbled in some of the reviews and it’s hard to get away from the fact that Kent received a very large advance for the novel; that she’s young and doing a PhD in creative writing, and  that it has been translated into twenty languages.    Ben Etherington has written an interesting piece in the Sydney Review of Books  about the marketing context that has many links- well worth reading.

As probably everyone knows, the book is a ‘speculative biography’ of Agnes Magnusdottir, who was executed for murder in Iceland in 1829. Awaiting sentence, she is interned on a remote farm, where enforced proximity draws her into the circle of her keeper’s family.

Everything that I would want to say about the book has been said before.   Reviewers speak of the historical setting, and I’ll talk about it too. Historical documents preface each of the chapters, that not only lend verisimilitude, but also act as a fence to constrain this speculative biography.  The research is obviously deep, and  its occasional didacticism can be excused when writing about such an unfamiliar historical setting.  Just as in history-writing itself, the endpoint is known, and it’s the author’s task to make it plausible and real.

Many reviewers rave about her descriptions of settings, and I need to join with them in praise. Her descriptions of setting are so evocative that you can almost see it. It’s a very cinematic book, and of course it has been optioned for a movie.  In your head you can see the opening scenes and hear the voice-over already.

I was struck in the opening pages by the story-ness of it.  Of course, story-telling is one of the themes of the book, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was reading the sort of book I might have read as a teenager, where all the people and events were set out in place, then ‘action’- the story proper began.   I still can’t decide whether it’s slightly clunky and old-fashioned, or very clever and self-reflexive. The device of the priest worked to usher in a first-person story-telling narrative, but I didn’t find myself particularly interested in him as a character.

And yes, several reviewers have squirmed under the buffeting of poetic imagery, and at times I felt rather overwhelmed by it as well.  But then she’d capture an image in a couple of words so cleanly and sharply that you’d nod and forgive her everything. I enjoyed the viscerality of her descriptions as Agnes is released from her cell as she smells herself and the grunge of captivity.  I felt the smoky fug of too many people in a small cottage  that evoked  shades of Halldor Laxness’ Independent People.

Then there’s the cover. Is it trite to talk about the cover? I don’t think so- it was part of my experience of settling down with a real-life, hold-in-the-hand book to read a bit more.  You won’t detect it on screen, but the cover has a beautiful pearlescent sheen, inside and out, and I often found myself running my hand over it as a thing of beauty.

aww-badge-2015-200x300This book has already been read so many times under the Historical Fiction category in the Australian Women Writers Challenge that I feel a little redundant putting it under the 2015 reviews as well.  Never mind.  Two years on from its publication, it should be standing on its own two feet. It does.

Advertisements

5 responses to “‘Burial Rites’ by Hannah Kent

  1. At least you’re not the last person in the world to read it Janine- I haven’t yet! Hoping to this year, but then I hoped to last year as well. I’m glad to hear that it’s still a good read after the wave of publicity has left. It can be hard to approach books like that though, it seems that all impetus to read has left… I like the cover too, it’s been sitting on my bedside table for some time now.

  2. Oh I’m glad you added it to AWW list RJ. One of the things that is great about AWW reviews is that it can help us track a little the longevity of books. Which books last longer than the first flush. Glad you enjoyed the book. Not bad as a debut effort I reckon.

  3. I did that to the cover too!

  4. Pingback: February 2015 Roundup: Historical Fiction | New Australian Women Writers Challenge Blog

  5. Pingback: Australian Women Writers Challenge 2015 wrap up | The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s