This has been my favourite book of 2014, so if you haven’t read it, do. You can thank me later.
There has been a boom in debut talent this year, and in my opinion, Hannah Kent is the pick of the bunch. Her novel, Burial Rites, is an outstanding piece of historical literary fiction, which traces the life of Agnes Magnusdottir, an Icelandic woman condemned to death for murdering her lover, Natan Ketilsson.
Based upon true events in Northern Iceland, 1829, Agnes’ fate is bleak from the outset. Forced upon a family in Kornsa, everyone and everything in her surrounding environment is unforgiving. Throughout her tale, I became more and more absorbed, shivering sympathetically with the family who endure the unimaginable Icelandic winter chill with the additional burden of another body to support, whilst simultaneously heated by the bitterness and hostility shown to Agnes, who, to the majority of people unfamiliar with her history, is seemingly guilty unless proven otherwise.
The success of Kent’s novel is in its ambiguity. Even at its conclusion, there is an absence of definitive resolution. No character is inherently good nor evil, an accurate reflection of human nature, and yet it is this human complexity that makes the novel both captivating and infuriating. In the search for justice, District Commissioner Bjorn Blondal overlooks motive; in the resolute need for redemption, he overlooks personhood and individual belief. Conversely, in his heart-warming intent to understand Agnes as a person and go beyond his duties as spiritual administrator, Assistant Reverend Thorvadur Jonsson loses sight of the present and succumbs to his irrepressible physical desire leaving Agnes to endure her stay at Kornsa unsupported.
Despite the claustrophobic, bitter environment and the constricted nature of Agnes’ journey, Kent develops a stunning novel that explores the deepest recesses of human spirit and resolution that results in an exhilarating read, the reader desperate to understand Agnes’ past, to seek growth from the characters she encounters and to find truth amidst the intrigue and speculation surrounding her story.
Burial Rites is a sublime work of fiction, both gripping and moving. Kent’s years of research have resulted in a book that filled me with intrigue and a desire to learn more about Iceland and its sagas. She has moved away from the purely incriminating accounts of Agnes and deftly created a captivating story that chills and restores; captures the complexity of emotions and relationships; and leaves you thinking about each character and their individual contribution to the tale for days.
I cannot recommend this book enough. It is magnificent; a book so beautiful and rare that I am sure to reread it before the year is out.