May 2013

Arts & Letters

‘Burial Rites’ by Hannah Kent

By Alexandra Coghlan

‘Burial Rites’, by Hannah Kent, Picador; $32.99

The popular fascination with Nordic murder mysteries takes a historical turn in Burial Rites, the debut novel from Australian author Hannah Kent. In 1829 servant Agnes Magnúsdóttir became the last woman to be beheaded in Iceland. Preserved in national legend as a witch and a whore, Kent’s altogether more equivocal Agnes exists beneath the slats of official correspondence: in the sum of folkloric tales, personal encounters and historical accounts.

A major two-book deal with Pan Macmillan and some heavyweight PR means that most will read about Kent’s work before they read the novel itself, a pressure this competent debut could do without. Having started life as a verse novel, Burial Rites still bulges at its seams, descriptive lyricism occasionally spilling over into excess. The bleak tragedy of the story, and the still bleaker landscape of northern Iceland, sees the smallest florid growth clearly silhouetted, and Kent’s third-person narrative episodes, with their image-dominated indulgence, are easy targets against the unyielding greys and blacks of her skyline.

Yet as revisionist histories go, Burial Rites is solid enough. The conceptual play on “rites” and “writes” persists throughout, as we watch Agnes (an educated, illegitimate murderess-poet in a simple, patriarchal community) quietly claiming back her own life-and-death story from the bald statements of parish records and legal inventories. Kent punctuates her narrative with historical documents, translated and occasionally lightly adapted for the sake of narrative clarity. It’s a familiar technique, one handled neatly if conservatively here. The lists and stock phrases of municipal discourse offer a hard surface for the protagonist’s first-person monologues to rebound against, animating the issue of historical absolutes: these documents tell the truth, but do they tell the story? And, if so, whose version?

Facts, events, even names are revealed as provisional in a tale that coils back on its brutal central events with measured and intricate self-regard. Kent’s concern is as much with storytelling, of a culture bred on sagas and epics, as with Agnes. Our heroine emerges in a smudgy collage of events and impressions as a sort of Icelandic Cousin Rachel, though lacking something of the elusive charm of du Maurier’s maybe-murderess.

Historical fiction was recently described in the New Yorker as “a pioneer country, without fixed laws”. With Hilary Mantel as sheriff, this outlying, unfashionable literary landscape is experiencing something of a seachange. It’s a movement that Kent’s debut catches at its turn. Her second book, another historical novel, this one set in 19th-century Ireland, will be a revealing follow-up to a debut whose literary grasp can’t quite equal the ambition of its reach.

Alexandra Coghlan

Alexandra Coghlan is the classical music critic for the New Statesman. She has written on the arts for the Guardian and Prospect.

There is nowhere quite like The Monthly. We are told that we live in a time of diminished attention spans; a time where the 24-hour-news-cycle has produced a collective desire for hot takes and brief summaries of the news and ideas that effect us. But we don’t believe it. The need for considered, reflective, long-form journalism has never been greater, and for almost 20 years, that’s what The Monthly has offered, from some of our finest writers.

That kind of quality writing costs money, and requires the support of our readers. Your subscription to The Monthly allows us to be the home for the best, most considered, most substantial perspectives on the state of the world. It’s Australia’s only current affairs magazine, an indispensable home for cultural commentary, criticism and reviews, and home to personal and reflective essays that celebrate and elevate our humanity.

The Monthly doesn’t just comment on our culture, our society and our politics: it shapes it. And your subscription makes you part of that.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

From the front page

Kim Williams seen through window with arms half-raised

The interesting Mr Williams

At a time when the ABC faces more pressure than ever before, is its new chair the right person for the job?

Exterior of the Department of Treasury, Canberra

Tax to grind

Tax reform should not be centred on what we want, but on who we want to be

Rehearsal for the ABC TV show ‘Cooking with Wine’, March 13, 1956

Whose ABC?

Amid questions of relevance and culture war hostilities, the ABC’s charter clearly makes the case for a government-funded national broadcaster

Tony McNamara in New York City, January 2024

Pure things: Tony McNamara

How the Australian screenwriter of ‘Poor Things’, who cut his teeth on shows such as ‘The Secret Life of Us’, earnt his second Oscar nomination

In This Issue

Misogyny exerts a force on all our lives: Prime Minister Gillard with Kyle Sandilands © Sam Mooy/Newspix

Hashtag feminism

‘Destroying the Joint’

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Death in Amsterdam

Vox

Mental disorders are messy amalgams of biology, psychology and culture / ‘The Extraction of the Stone of Madness’ (c.1494), Hieronymus Bosch

DSM-5 and the mental illness make-over

Modern madness

Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

Annette Kellerman & Esther Williams


More in Arts & Letters

Tony McNamara in New York City, January 2024

Pure things: Tony McNamara

How the Australian screenwriter of ‘Poor Things’, who cut his teeth on shows such as ‘The Secret Life of Us’, earnt his second Oscar nomination

Jeffrey Wright in ‘American Fiction’

The dread of the author: ‘American Fiction’ and ‘Argylle’

Cord Jefferson’s satire about Black artists fighting white perceptions of their work runs out of ideas, while Matthew Vaughn’s spy movie parody has no ideas of its own

David Malouf, March 2015 in Sydney

An imagined life: David Malouf

Celebrating the literary great’s 90th birthday with a visit to his incongruous home of Surfers Paradise to discuss a life in letters

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Pictures of you

The award-winning author kicks off our new fiction series with a story of coming to terms with a troubled father’s obsessions


More in Noted

Cover of Lauren Oyler’s ‘No Judgement: On Being Critical’

Lauren Oyler’s ‘No Judgement’

The American author and critic’s essay collection moves from her gripes with contemporary cultural criticism to personal reflection

Cover of Sheila Heti’s ‘Alphabetical Diaries’

Sheila Heti’s ‘Alphabetical Diaries’

The Canadian writer’s presentation of sentence-long entries from her diaries, organised alphabetically, delivers a playful and unpredictable self-examination

Cover of ‘Kids Run the Show’

Delphine de Vigan’s ‘Kids Run the Show’

The French author’s fragmentary novel employs the horror genre to explore anxieties about intimacy, celebrity and our infatuation with life on screens

Still from ‘Boy Swallows Universe’

‘Boy Swallows Universe’

The magical realism in Netflix’s adaptation of Trent Dalton’s bestselling novel derails its tender portrayal of family drama in 1980s Brisbane’s suburban fringe


Online latest

Osamah Sami with members of his local mosque

In ‘House of Gods’, Sydney’s Muslim community gets to be complicated

Plus, Barnaby Joyce shines in ‘Nemesis’, Emma Seligman and Rachel Sennott deliver ‘Bottoms’, and Chloë Sevigny and Molly Ringwald step up for ‘Feud: Capote vs. The Swans’.

International Film Festival Rotterdam highlights

Films from Iran, Ukraine and Bundaberg were deserving winners at this year’s festival

Two women on a train smile and shake hands

‘Expats’ drills down on Hong Kong’s class divide

Plus, Netflix swallows Trent Dalton, Deborah Mailman remains in ‘Total Control’ and ‘Vanderpump Rules’ returns for another season

Image of a man playing music using electronics and the kora (West African harp)

Three overlooked albums of spiritual jazz from 2023

Recent releases by kora player John Haycock, trumpeter Matthew Halsall and 14-piece jazz ensemble Ancient Infinity Orchestra feel like a refuge from reality