Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Burial Rites

A friend who is going to Iceland with me next summer, on her first trip there, gave me Hannah Kent's novel, Burial Rites, last October. We had both been thrilled with the early reviews, thrilled to see a book set in Iceland in 1828 getting so much attention.

But my friend had read Burial Rites before she gave it to me and, though she tried to hide it, I could tell she didn't like it. I had a lot to read already. I put it on my shelf and didn't open it until right before Christmas.

Once I started, I read it in a rush. It's a beautiful book, though a very sad one, about a young woman condemned to be beheaded for murders she may or may not have committed. Kent's lyrical writing drew me in and, though I intended to be critical and frowned at her mention of thorn bushes and brambles plucking at a woman's skirts (I've never seen thorn bushes and brambles in Iceland), there were very few mistakes of this kind. Kent had, indeed, visited the Iceland I knew, had read the same 18th- and 19th-century travelers' tales as I had, had read the Icelandic sagas.

I asked my friend why she didn't like the book. It was "claustrophobic," she said.

True. But to me that's proof of Kent's skill as a writer: She was able to make the reader feel the claustrophobic atmosphere of life inside a turf house on a farm a bare step above abject poverty in a country that has, in addition to its gloriously long summer days (when I visit), an equally long, dark winter.

In Iceland in 1828 there were no jails. So until her execution the convicted murderess, Agnes, is kept on a farm where the housewife, Margrét, chooses to treat her as a servant (she's sane and a good worker) instead of locking her up. But there's no real difference, when winter comes, between being a servant and being a prisoner on a poor Icelandic farm.

Here's a passage from Burial Rites:

Autumn fell upon the valley like a gasp. Margrét, lying awake in the extended gloom of the October morning, her lungs mossy with mucus, wondered at how the light had grown slow in coming; how it seemed to stagger through the window, as though weary from traveling such a long way. Already it seemed a struggle to rise. She'd wake in the chill night with Jón pressing his toes against her legs to warm them, and the farmhands were coming in from feeding the cow and horses with their noses and cheeks pink with the ice in the air. Her daughters had said that there was a frost every morning of their berrying trip, and snow had fallen during the round-up. Margrét had not gone, not trusting her lungs to last the long walk up over the mountain to find and herd the sheep from their summer pasture, but she'd sent everyone else. Except Agnes. She could not let her walk over the mountain. Not that she would flee. Agnes wasn't stupid. She knew this valley, and she knew what little escape it offered. She'd be seen. Everyone knew who she was.

As the story progresses, it's clear that Agnes is not the only person under a sentence of death. Everyone Agnes has ever cared about in the past has died--in childbirth, through illness or accident--and those the reader comes to care about, like Margrét with her bad lungs, are equally fragile.

I do have one complaint with Kent's approach. There's a bit of the medieval Laxdaela Saga plunked into the last quarter of Burial Rites. A line of the saga--"I was worst to the one I loved best"--is used as the epigraph. To someone, like me, who has studied Laxdaela Saga it's a puzzling inclusion. I can't imagine what someone who's never read Laxdaela Saga would make of it, but to me the comparison between Gudrún of Laxdaela Saga and Agnes is belittling to both stories. The motives of both women are reduced to mere jealousy, whereas there's no comparison between Kjartan (whose death Gudrún masterminded) and Natan (whom Agnes is convicted of killing). The Kjartan-Gudrún love story is tragically complex. Natan is just a womanizer, in Kent's rendition. I felt no loss at his death, rather that something foul had been cleaned from the beautiful, if desolate, farm where he and Agnes had lived. To make Agnes echo Gudrún, Kent needed to make Natan more rounded, more sensitive, more appealing, more like the prized and powerful member of society that Kjartan is--at whose death every reader weeps.

But then Burial Rites would have been a different book. And not, I don't think, a better one. As it is, I just skimmed the pages from Laxdaela Saga and continued on. If I ever meet Hannah Kent (and I hope I do, in Iceland), perhaps we can have a cup of tea and discuss her reading of Laxdaela Saga. It's the kind of thing people do all the time in Iceland: examine each other's understanding of the past.

Join me again next week at for another adventure in Iceland or the medieval world. And if you would like to go to Iceland with me next summer, check out the tours at


  1. Burial Rites has been on my to read list for a while. I think I will wait until spring is in the air. Winter is gloomy enough.

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