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BURIAL RITES by Hannah Kent
The first time I saw Hannah Kent was on AUSTRALIAN STORY when she was profiled for the episode MORE THAN A GHOST. All I remember from the show were these words, ‘No one’s really a monster’. I thought, maybe this chick is the smartest woman alive.
It was not very much later that an interview with Hannah Kent appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald. The story of Hannah Kent and her first manuscript was a fire feeding itself. Suddenly everyone was talking about how everyone was talking about her.
I suppose I was a fan of the book before I even begun reading BURIAL RITES. I purchased it with a preexisting notion that it was going to be good. I had brought into the marketing and buzz. I already believed in the book. Burial Rites had already been on TV. I thought, here is a book I could learn a lot from.
It didn’t expect it to be so good, in such a subtle way.
BURIAL RITES is set in Nothern Iceland in 1829, where a young woman Agnes Magnúsdóttir has been condemned to death by beheading for her part in the brutal murder of two men.
The story, based on the real events of Agnes Magnúsdóttir’s execution which will come to be the last execution in Iceland, are as true to the facts as possible.
Agnes is sent to wait out the months leading up to her execution on the farm of district officer Jón Jónsson, his wife and their two daughters. Horrified to have a convicted murderess in their midst, the family avoid contact with Agnes. Only Tóti, the young assistant priest appointed her spiritual guardian, will listen to Agnes’s side of the story.
As you read on it becomes clear that the story is about perception and isolation. Agnes is different from those around her, a victim of circumstance and a product of her environment.
Her time spent in the home awaiting execution are interlaced with historic artefacts from the trial and her own memories leading up to the crime.
The story beautiful, and took only a few days to read.
I loved reading about the landscape which was so crisply brought to life. There is a juxtaposition of the enormous sky and unending land scape that heightens the claustrophobia within the micro home where they all live. The life lived within the farmhouse is rich with industry responsive to the land and seasons and the stink of human life and burning shit.
BURIAL RITES was published in 2013 by Picador by Pan Macmillan, Australia and is Hannah Kent’s first novel.
It is 338 pages long and took me about three days to read.
The story of publication for Kent may seem too good to be true.
In 2011 Kent’s novel, still in the draft stages, won the inaugural Writing Australia Unpublished Manuscript Award, which included a mentorship with a writer of her choosing. Kent chose Pulitzer Prize-winning US-based Australian novelist Geraldine Brooks. This award no longer exists, and only lived a few years before it stopped.
The sale of the manuscript started a bidding frenzy between publishers in Australia and overseas.
However, upon meeting Kent at the Emerging Writers Festival and sitting in on her panel discussion, I was struck by her honesty about her publishing tale. She was not, as she put it, the best writer in her class. She was however the one that had a book ready to enter. Kent spoke of diligence and commitment. She had something tangible and ready to go where the others did not.
I believe I have learnt more from the writer than I have from her text. Listening to her story reminds me to continue to work on my writing practice and make it a priority.
Burial Rites does not have a Wikipedia page.
Keep reading (listening) with the AUSTRALIAN WRITERS CENTRE‘s podcast review of Burial Rites and chats with Hannah Kent.