My book club will get a big laugh at the title of this review. They’re always razzing me about my taste for dark novels. And it’s true that I’m drawn to darkness and suffering, at least on the printed page. Two such books are Burial Rites, the debut novel by Hannah Kent, published in September, and Let Him Go by Larry Watson (to be reviewed tomorrow). Set in 19th Century Iceland, Burial Rites is based on the true story of the last woman publicly beheaded in that country.
Since I am in the throes of finishing my own historical novel, I feel compelled to study how others use concrete details of setting and customs, and Kent did a masterful job of this. Here, Burial Rites presents Agnes Magnusdottir, a convicted murderer held in filthy solitary confinement since her trial, through the eyes of Margret Jonsson, whose family is forced to board Agnes for her last year of life. Margret does not welcome this addition to her family, but is determined to maintain cleanliness and order in her home. She warms a large kettle on the coals, heaves it to the ground, then commands Agnes to wash up so as not to infest the house.
Agnes looked at the kettle and then suddenly fell to the ground. At first Margret thought she had fainted, then quickly realized her mistake. She watched as Agnes bent her head over the kettle’s rim and scooped handfuls of greasy water into her mouth, gasping and drinking with the same urgency as an animal at a trough. Water ran down her chin and neck, dripping into the stiff folds of her dress. Without thinking, Margret bent down and pushed Agnes’s forehead from the kettle.
The woman fell back upon her elbows and let out a cry, water gurgling from her mouth. Margret’s heart lurched at the sound. (47)
This passage, typical of so many in the novel—the kettle warmed over coals, the greasy water, the simile of an animal at a trough—appeals to sight, taste, touch, and sound, recreating the scene but also evoking sympathy. That Kent should get the setting so right is due not only to her thorough research but also to the year she studied in Iceland as an exchange student, when she first heard the story of Agnes Magnusdottir.
The narrative structure of Burial Rites, running on parallel tracks of past and present, ends with the murder Agnes is accused of committing and with the execution she’s sentenced to. Suspense comes not so much from What’s going to happen, as Why this is happening. And while death from an ax may be a clean cut, life isn’t. At the trial, Agnes was allowed no voice. Now it is her voice mesmerizing her audience: Toti, her priest, the Jonssons, sometimes just Margret, and sometimes only herself. Truth falls somewhere between what she says and what she thinks, creating doubt about both her guilt and her innocence. But there is no doubt how her audience are drawn from their initial disgust to genuine sympathy.
Margret is the first person to respond in a significant way to Agnes. Herself dying of tuberculosis, she understands Agnes’s fears as well as her fierce desire to live. When the officers arrive to take Agnes away, Margret says to her:
‘I am right here, Agnes. You’ll always be my girl. My girl.’… she has passed my hands on to Steina [the older Jonsson daughter], as though I am a token, or a piece of bread and they are all taking communion of me…[Steina] wraps her arms around my neck… I cling to her because her body is warm and I cannot remember when someone last held me like this, when someone cared enough to lay their cheek next to mine. (307)
Agnes chooses Toti, a callow assistant priest, as her spiritual counselor because he once showed her a small kindness– he helped her cross a river. Toti doesn’t accomplish the reformation in her expected by the government officials. Rather, he is the one reformed in that he is pulled from his scholarly innocence into the stuff of real life. As they approach the execution site, she is unable to move her legs to walk through the snow. As he bends down to lift her, they topple together, but he refuses any aid. “‘No!’ The word came out as a scream…’Please let me lift her. I need to lift her.'” (310) In lifting her, he lifts himself.
There is so much to admire in this novel, not the least of which is Kent’s knowledge of Icelandic sagas and language, but most profoundly it is her deep understanding of how humans acquire empathy once they learn not to regard strangers as “the Other.” How can such a book be deemed bleak?
Please return tomorrow for the review of another new, new novel, Larry Watson’s Let Him Go.