Title: Burial Rites, Author: Hannah Kent, Publisher: Picador
How do you write about a book that is so very intense that it seems to freeze the blood in your veins? You feel an indescribable sadness, followed by numbness. You are overwrought as your sense of helplessness makes you want to scream - but you are trapped in a dreadful silence and hollowness.
Hannah Kent's "Burial Rites", has an overpowering effect. It makes you cringe; your entire being seems to cower - while wanting desperately to protest. You marvel at the richness of the writer's language and at the depth of her understanding of human nature at its most vulnerable and also at its most unforgiving.
The book is about a servant girl, Agnes Magnusdottir, living in Iceland in the 1820s; there actually was such a girl of the same name who happened to be the last person to be executed in Iceland.
Reading about Agnes's life, her impending doom and her agonizing waiting for death, becomes increasingly difficult, yet there's a pressing urge to read on. This young woman is convicted to die for a heinous murder.
The incriminating evidence, people's unwillingness to search for the truth of what had really happened and why, their judging her without knowing her at all, and their harboring hatred based on hearsay or conjecture - all point at the glaring flaws of capital punishment.
Agnes's life had always been hard and filled with misfortunes. She believed she had finally found happiness with Natan - her master - who became her lover, and the person she was said to have killed. (Actually two men had been murdered).
The tragedy becomes more pronounced as Agnes has to continue living for some months - until it is time for the execution. She is placed in the custody of a family consisting of a farmer, his wife and their two daughters.
The gradual fading away of the family members' initial antagonism and their slowly becoming sensitive to her state is fascinatingly narrated.
There are a couple of very likeable characters - like Margret, the woman in whose house Agnes has been kept and Reverend Toti, the young priest put in charge of Agnes (to guide her in confession, and prayers for salvation).
The morbidity of the circumstances, the gloomy climate and the depressing landscape, are defeated by the sheer splendor of the writer's eloquence and very impressive style - and what we see, through her writing, is an untamed beauty.
Kent, an Australian, writes about Iceland like it is her own country. This novel is the outcome of her research combined with her storytelling prowess. She had first heard of Agnes Magnusdottir when she lived in Iceland for a year as an exchange student.
She had been "intrigued" by her and felt a "kinship" with her. Then, to write her research paper for her PhD degree, she went back there, choosing Agnes's story as her topic. The end result is this very original, beautifully laid-out book.
She could not gather much information about the killings but created the story by becoming a part of the place where it had all happened. She breathed life into the Agnes of Icelandic folklore. Agnes does not talk much and there is not much information about her (and that, too, it's mostly its biased opinion).
Yet, Kent's portrayal of this character is so brilliant, we can't help but be awestruck. In identifying with Agnes, Kent depicts her as a real, normal person and says she wants to "represent Agnes's ambiguity and to discover something of her complexity, and in that, her humanity".
This book which can be described in superlatives, has a section (like an afterword) "discovering Agnes: Hannah Kent On Writing Burial Rites" - which is so enlightening that it seems like a treasure chest. Here, she reveals her apprehensions and doubts about her ability to write. It is clear that she had to struggle.
Her candid confessions regarding her fears of writing are like food for the hungry, incentives for aspiring writers. The piece ends thus: "Perhaps the only fiction worth reading - the writing that ensnares you wholly, that lays weigh to your heart - is that which is born of love and terror, slick with the blood of its creator".
To Hannah Kent, "Burial Rites" is her "dark love letter to Iceland"; for us, it is an inspiration to read Iceland's sagas.
Nausheen Rahman is a teacher,
critic and bibliophile
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