Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Hannah Kent's "Burial Rites": a tale of murder and high lyricism in 19th century Iceland

Burial Rites is a meticulously researched, heartfelt story that is as compelling as it is unusual: it recounts, in a poetic, lyrical and dramatic way, the final days of the last woman to be publicly beheaded in Iceland in 1830. The author, Hannah Kent, is a PhD student at Flinders University in Adelaide. Burial Rites is Kent’s debut novel, and it won the inaugural Writing Australia Unpublished Manuscript Award in 2011.

Hannah Kent first encountered the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir while a Rotary Exchange student in Iceland, and one wonders if Kent’s version is infused with the struggles of her first immersion into Icelandic language and culture, and possibly her own first experience of “otherness” and being the foreigner; the exile in a sense, in a new community far from her own home. These are subjective wonderings, but the experience of being on the outside and yearning to be gathered into a family, to be given an emotional and well as actual location to call home, seems to be written with an authenticity that suggests Kent has felt these things too, and deeply, and creates a intensely believable character in Agnes. On this thematic level the novel resonates in a universal scope, as the search for home and belonging is a theme as old as (older than) The Odyssey — a story Arnold Zable once said may be the quintessential story of our times. 

Burial Rites is at once the linear narrative of a woman approaching her death, and a series of flashbacks and dreams that appear more as spokes on a turning wheel, cycling amidst the present-time plot. Both structures, deftly interwoven, provide a strong fatalistic pull that creates a devastating tension, especially as we are brought thoroughly into Agnes’ point of view, and see the world of Iceland through her lens, her memories, as well as her recounting to the priest, Assistant Reverend Thorvardur Jónsson, called Tóti throughout most of the text.

Agnes’ ongoing confession to Tóti in the days before her death serves through much of the novel as a way to communicate Agnes’ backstory in full; at times this conceit feels a little labored, but there is no doubt that it is a solid way of giving us a lot of important information that is needed in order to fully appreciate the resonances of Agnes’ story. Communicating these resonances, too, is an explicit agenda of the work — Kent herself chooses this sentiment as the finale of her Author’s Note, explaining that Burial Rites “has been written to supply a more ambiguous portrayal of this woman.”(319) The other advantage to this technique of the interview is that we, as readers, in a sense become the priest — we, along with Tóti, are ineffectual in stopping Agnes’ death, we are privileged to her inner story as nobody else hears it, and like the priest we are drawn into falling in love with Agnes, as a victim, survivor and fascinating person. The fact that Kent manages to hold that tension until the end, when the conclusion is known from the start, is a huge achievement. 

The key performer in the novel is, however — for this reader at least — the landscape. The reference to the landscape (both actual and psychological) of the Brontes’ work feels strongly present —  “The rain lightened for a minute, and then resumed falling as they turned into the valley, sheets of gray sweeping over the curved earth before them, and water falling over the rocky precipices of the mountains” (125) — and so for readers of 19th century literature there are layers to Kent’s story that resonate beyond the basic fact of fascination with what, to many of us, seems an exotic island, a “black island washing in its waters, sulking in its ocean. Chasing our shadows across the mountains.” (36) In this way Kent suggests connections between a literary landscape that many of us are familiar with, with the concept of rural Iceland, which feels far more mythic, and it is these connections that help us enter Agnes’ world in a visceral way, and another way Kent plays with the tantalizing sense of almost home which Agnes suffers from throughout the novel. In this rendering of landscape, I was reminded of Marilyn Robinson’s many and rich descriptions of Fingerbone Lake in Housekeeping. Kent personifies the environment, and blurs the border between human and earth, such as Agnes’s inner monologue just before her execution: 

Those who are not being dragged to their deaths cannot understand how the heart grows hard and sharp, until it is a nest of rocks with only an empty egg in it. I am barren; nothing will grow from me anymore. I am the dead fish drying in the cold air. I am the dead bird on the shore. I am dry, I am not certain I will bleed when they drag me out to meet the axe. No, I am still warm, my blood still howls in my veins like the wind itself, and it shakes the empty nests and asks where all the birds have gone, where have they gone? (301)

In this way, throughout the novel, the landscape becomes an active witness, almost taking on the quality of a Greek chorus — warning, then keening, one huge lament for Agnes’ death.

The writing was poetic and opened new ways of seeing the space, although at times the description went just that little bit too far, so that I was made consciously aware I was reading a beautiful description, a sort of deluxe version —  “Sometimes, after talking to the Reverend, my mouth aches. My tongue feels so tired; it slumps in my mouth like a dead bird, all damp feathers, in between the stones of my teeth.” (207) That is, however, a wonderful criticism to have to make as criticisms go, and this writing trait of Kent’s could also be construed as demonstrating a romantic author (in the true sense of the word) flexing her semantic muscles. It also highlights the fact that we can often read a writing style limited by our own experiences of what is “normative” prose for us; once upon a time Kent’s writing may have been seen as not actually embellished enough.

It has been a while since I missed a subway stop because of a book, and when reading Burial Rites, that happened — not once, but twice! Every time I dipped into the novel, I was instantly pulled into a world that both devastated and uplifted me in equal measure, and I would recommend Kent’s writing to anyone who loves that combination of the rich inner world of exiled characters, with a larger-than-life landscape that envelops you solidly into another world.