May 2013

Arts & Letters

‘Burial Rites’ by Hannah Kent

By Alexandra Coghlan

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 Kent punctuates her narrative with historical documents, translated and occasionally lightly adapted for the sake of narrative clarity.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.

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

Cover: May 2013
View Edition

From the front page

Image of Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton speaking during Question Time today

‘She said, he said’

Let’s consider what has been said

Image of Stephen Graham as Joseph McCarthy in The Virtues

Its own reward: ‘The Virtues’

Topping February’s streaming highlights is a four-part series examining trauma and addiction, propelled by Stephen Graham’s affecting performance

Image of ‘Fragile Monsters’

‘Fragile Monsters’ by Catherine Menon

Memories of the Malayan Emergency resurface when a mathematician returns to her home country, in the British author’s debut novel

In light of recent events

Track your vaccine with Australia Post

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

Image of ‘Queen Elizabeth and Vincent (on country)’, 2018

The paintbrush is a weapon: Vincent Namatjira

The Archibald Prize winner’s politics are less straightforward than the art world might like to think

Still from ‘Australia Remastered’, courtesy ABC

Eye to eye in the wild: ‘Australia Remastered’

The continent’s natural wonders – some now gone forever – are celebrated in a series that uncovers footage from the ABC’s disbanded Natural History Unit

Still from ‘High Ground’

Once upon a time in the north: ‘High Ground’

Stephen Maxwell Johnson’s foray into Australia’s violent colonial history is a visually spectacular, if overfamiliar, revisionist Western

Image of Kylie Minogue, 2019

Stopped back in time: Kylie Minogue’s ‘Disco’

The showbiz trouper delivers another album of spare, efficient pleasure


More in Noted

Image of ‘Fragile Monsters’

‘Fragile Monsters’ by Catherine Menon

Memories of the Malayan Emergency resurface when a mathematician returns to her home country, in the British author’s debut novel

’Purrukuparli ngirramini’ © Harold Porkilari

‘TIWI’ at the National Gallery of Victoria

A must-see exhibition of Tiwi art from Bathurst and Melville islands, in which historical and contemporary media and imagery fuse

Image of ‘Jack’

‘Jack’ by Marilynne Robinson

History and suffering matter in the latest instalment of the American author’s Gilead novels

Image from ‘The Dry’

‘The Dry’ directed by Robert Connolly

Eric Bana stars as a troubled investigator dragged back to his home town in a sombre Australian thriller


Read on

Image of Stephen Graham as Joseph McCarthy in The Virtues

Its own reward: ‘The Virtues’

Topping February’s streaming highlights is a four-part series examining trauma and addiction, propelled by Stephen Graham’s affecting performance

Image of Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl performing in 2019.

Celebrity misinformation

The Foo Fighters’ AIDS denialism should be on the record

Still from Minari.

Small glories: ‘Minari’

Childhood memories are suffused with an adult’s insight in Lee Isaac Chung’s semi-autobiographical film

Image of Eddie McGuire resigning as president of the Collingwood Football Club.

Tumbled Pie

On Eddie McGuire, racism and ‘doing better’


×
×