Burial Rites by Hannah Kent
The reputation of this debut novel precedes it. In this case it has created an expectation that unfortunately the book cannot match. First impressions are important, and this is so obviously signposted that it is almost patronising. The inclusion of letters is a pleasant technique but one that doesn’t allow the backstory to unfurl naturally in the reader’s mind. It’s indicative of inexperience, though it also reveals the depth of research behind this meticulous storytelling.
A Scandinavian crime novel of sorts, this story follows the condemned Agnes Magnúsdóttir on her journey towards execution. It’s a tale of loyalties and love, of what it means to work to the bone, to be abandoned, to be misunderstood and redeemed. Tentative at times, the writing grows stronger after the opening chapters to reflect the inner strength of the damned Agnes. Cold throughout, Hannah Kent conjures the period perfectly and leaves the reader with a sense of inevitable doom that seeps through the pages.
Attention to gender relations and nuances is paid across the novel; deep in the writing, rising consistently to the surface, is a discussion of the gendered nature of crime and guilt, a comment on representations of women in both a 19th century and a criminal context. This is the powerhouse of the novel, what drives the narrative and lends gravitas to the story.
Agnes’ voice is raw, evoking the earth and the life in her trials – a mirror for struggle in the face of overwhelming damnation, whether deserved or not. Changing perspectives keep the pace fresh, and the brilliance of the language is impressive. The final chapters tumble out, though, upsetting the rhythm of the slow-burning story, losing some of its potency.
Kent has powerful descriptive command, with the ability to create an entire world in the mind, down to the details of farm roofs and rocks in a freezing stream. It’s a strong gift; one that will surely continue to impress in future works. The academic rigour and dedication to this novel prove its credentials as a robust debut, but one that falls short of being moving, fails in its attempts to utterly redeem the pitiful heroine.
Burial Rites is published by Picador Fiction at the paperback price of £7.99. For further information visit the author’s website here.