Vault Review: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

There is so much hype surrounding this book. There are so many amazing reviews and it has won a slew of awards. It was written on a million dollar advance. Holy hell, that is a lot of money.

The premise is fantastic and totally not the standard at the moment. It’s nice to take a break from what the publishing world has been giving us for a while. I also felt kind of obligated to give this a shot since Hannah Kent is Australian and seems like a really great woman… she’s an formidable talent on the Australian university circuit and will definitely do some amazing things.

The novel follows Agnes Magnusdottir, a woman sentenced to death for a double homicide in 19th century northern Iceland. She is made to move into a family home to await her execution, against the wishes of the family who live there.

The novel is extremely well researched, so you can have absolute faith that the descriptions of the events are close to exact and that the way in which the people live is absolutely true. The descriptions of the Northern Icelandic landscape are phenomenal- I especially liked a description of two icebergs bumping into each other.

I was definitely dragged along through the story, even though I knew how it was all going to end. I just had to find out why Agnes had killed, or even if she had committed the crime in the first place. I wanted to know how Agnes went to her fate, and how she felt walking up to the place of execution. I loved listening to Agnes telling her story, and felt almost as if I was in the darkness of the Icelandic croft as she was telling it.

In some ways, I kind of wish it had only been told from Agnes’ point of view. I can see why it wasn’t, but I infinitely preferred her narrative voice over the third person narration.

Unfortunately, I didn’t really enjoy this book as much as I hoped I would. There’s no denying it is a great book… It’s just one that is difficult to enjoy, if “enjoy” is even the right word for it. There is a constant, dark sense of foreboding that pervades this work, as it absolutely should, but something about it just didn’t click with me. I almost feel like it was a little too far over into the pretentious literary side, but even that isn’t quite correct. Hence, I’ve really struggled to rate it.

For me, it kind of feels like I was waiting for a really good cup of tea, but when it was given to me, the person who made it used half tea and half coffee. So I’ve sort of got what I wanted, sort of got what I didn’t want, but it’s cold in Iceland and this is a hot beverage all the same.

What I can definitely say for sure is that the next problem I had is with me, not a fault of the author.

You may have noticed, but many literary texts- in fact, all of the Australian literary texts I can think of- use a trope called “the grotesque body”. Basically, there are descriptions of characters doing all the things humans do- eating, shitting, sleeping, pissing, fucking etc. It serves to humanise or debase a character, show that we are all basically just machines working to operate our bodies.

I can read about the nastiest of wounds, the sawing off of limbs, battles, death and decay. I can look at horrible injuries with nary a squirm. Hell, I know how to dress wounds that defy belief. I’m not squeamish -though I do have spidey senses for rotten meat and dairy (even a touch off and I’m retching). Regardless, I’m not a person to freak out over something yucky.

Just don’t make me read a passage where a character pees down her own leg. I’ll take the baby seal clubbing over the peeing, thanks.

This trope turns me off a book so fast it isn’t funny. I don’t know why, it just does. It makes me squirm like you wouldn’t believe, and there is lots of it in this book. I wish Australian writers would stop doing this, as it just irks me… once is fine, more than that is too much. It turns me off reading Australian literary writers, since I feel like this trope is going to be in there. (I’m looking at you, Tim Winton)

I didn’t have too much trouble with all the Icelandic names, thanks to the pronunciation guide at the front of the book and having a best friend who is Swedish, so I’m a bit used to the sounds. I’m glad Hannah Kent decided to keep the names in Icelandic and use Icelandic names for objects, as it helped with the authenticity. Plus, I really enjoyed understanding how the Icelandic surnaming system works!

I also really liked that Kent has used a period of history in a place not generally known about. I knew nothing about life in Iceland before this book, other than it must be bloody cold and living there in the 19th century must have been a wrench. I didn’t know about Agnes’ tale before this, but I would read more about her if I saw something written in English.

Overall, this is a fantastic piece of historical fiction… it is just not one that I connected with in the way I hoped. I think if I had read it without knowing it’s a book that is supposed to be staggeringly good- worthy of a million dollar advance good- I would have liked it more. I also would have liked at least 90% less urine, but that just seems the done thing in Australian literature. It’s not a book I’d read again, but it’s not one I regret reading at all.

If someone asked me if they should read it, I’d say yes. I have a few people in mind who I’m sure would really enjoy it, and I’ll probably end up buying them a copy for Christmas… but it just wasn’t all I had hoped for for myself.

3.25/5 stars (Yes, 3.25. Told you I struggled to rate it.)


7 thoughts on “Vault Review: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

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  3. I’ve been wondering and wondering about reading this book, as it’s set in my favourite country. It’s interesting that you relate the grotesequery to the Australian novel; I’m not sure I’ve read enough modern ones to see that, and it’s certainly not to the fore in the Virago books I’ve read by Australians. I do now wonder if some of the disconnect you felt with this was a product of her aping the Icelandic saga style – very flat narration with extremely dry humour interspersed with almost astonishing violence. I found that in Halldor Laxness’ writing and I’d be interested to know if you’ve read any of his.

    • It’s not in the older ones, I really like the older Australian novels, some are my favourites! Just the newer “high literary” novels- I’ve seen it in too many 😦 I did find that this book had an effect on me though, I have ummed and ahhed about buying a new copy (I gave mine away) but haven’t yet. I’m sure it’ll be around if I decide to re-read it.
      Hmm I wouldn’t say that, it’s really not what I would call a “violent” book. It was more the style of narration that I found lacking.
      I actually bought “The Fish Can Sing” the other day!

      • Oh, cool – I haven’t read that one yet, but “Independent People” is one of my favourite. books. ever.

        I suppose I was thinking more of the rather flat language / narration which I know some people find difficult in sagas and Laxness and might have got into “Burial Rites”. It’s in the Indriðasons I’m devouring, too.

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