Friday, August 30, 2013

Burial Rites - Hannah Kent

Several years ago I worked in a volunteer capacity with incarcerated women, and got to know more than a few whose crime was murder. Most of them had dispensed with men they claimed were abusive, some handful were party to drug deals gone sour, but there was one woman, I'll call her J, who stood convicted of one of the most depraved, cruel, and meaningless murders ever committed in this country. I have never feared meeting a person as much as I feared meeting J, but over the course of a few months I got to know her as a charming, warm, and thoughtful person.  Her sentence had been commuted from death to life without parole only weeks before we met, and I was struck by her humility at the opportunity she'd been given to live.

I was so unnerved by the dissonance I felt in her presence -- brutal murderess? misunderstood wretch? -- that I found the need to speak to a friend in the criminal justice system about her. I will never forget what I was told: J is a chameleon, and she can and does adapt instantly to the environment in which she finds herself, or the people with whom she finds herself engaged, and that makes her one of the most dangerous inmates in the system. Many of the facts of J's life tug at the one heart string I have left, but my God, what that woman did.......

I know you didn't come here for another chapter in my story, but the time I spent with J seems to draw me to books like this one. I'm still trying to put that whole encounter in the appropriate filing cabinet in my brain.

Hannah Kent

Set against Iceland's stark landscape, Hannah Kent brings to vivid life the story of Agnes, who, charged with the brutal murder of her former master, is sent to an isolated farm to await execution. Horrified at the prospect of housing a convicted murderer, the family at first avoids Agnes. Only Toti, a priest Agnes has mysteriously chosen to be her spiritual guardian, seeks to understand her. But as Agnes's death looms, the farmer's wife and their daughters learn there is another side to the sensational story they've heard.   ~~ Little Brown and Company

The true crime from which Hannah Kent drew inspiration for her novel Burial Rites took place in Iceland in the very late 1820's, a remove that allows her to use all the actual names, places, and historic records as material for the yarn she spins. Kent didn't set out to write a non-fiction piece about the life and crimes of Agnes Magnúsdóttir. The internal dialogues, conversations, and emotional lives of the characters never feel contrived, though, and as easy as it would have been for Ms. Kent to fictionally exonerate Agnes, she takes a much more authentic and satisfying road. There is an air of moral ambiguity about the nature of Agnes' crime that lingers long after the reader has closed the book for the last time and moved on.

Further, the descriptions of daily life in the late 1800's version of Iceland created an enveloping atmosphere: even as I sat in my summer-warm house I often felt a need to draw a blanket over my exquisitely pedicured toes, and I discovered a new fondness for my toilet, even though the handle always needs jiggling. Seriously, before I picked up this book that was the biggest irritant in my life. Now, I'm more like, "If I don't have to carry it out in a bucket, I'm good."

Agnes' striking narrative, interwoven randomly throughout the novel, is sheer poetry. I plan to return to the book in the future and read nothing but her voice, because I believe it would stand quite well on its own.

Admittedly, my experience with J colored how I processed much of Burial Rites. I understood without any trouble the way others became sympathetic to Agnes. She even deserved sympathy, but sympathy and exoneration are two separate things, and my most expensive hat is off to Ms. Kent for successfully suspending thoughtful readers between truth and fiction, right and wrong, and justice and unfairness.

My bottom line:  Wholly engrossing.    

Special note: Unless you are a linguist, Ms. Kent's pronunciation guide in the front will drive you insane. It's not that it's not good, but the distraction of flipping back and forth threatened to break the spell, so I stopped. I did, however, find her explanation of the Icelandic surnames interesting and helpful.

Release date: September 10, 2013


  1. See . . . this is the problem with you starting up your blog again. Now I have to get this book.

  2. Then perhaps my job here is done. I appreciate your support.

    I'm averaging 8 peeks a post. Am I famous yet?

  3. That is the beauty of listening to this book! The narrator is fabulous and the names that roll off her tongue are beautiful!