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 Kent punctuates her narrative with historical documents, translated and occasionally lightly adapted for the sake of narrative clarity.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

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