Review: Narrative structure in ‘Burial Rites’ by Hannah Kent

Burial Rites is a compelling début historical fiction novel by Hannah Kent that explores the life of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last woman to be executed in Iceland. In 1829, Fridrik Sigurdsson, the son of the farmer at Katadalur, and Agnes Magnúsdóttir and Sigrídur (Sigga) Gudmundsdóttir, Illugastadir workmaids, are convicted of the murders of Natan Ketilsson, a herbalist and owner of Illugastadir, and Pétur Jónsson, a convicted robber. All three are sentenced to death. Agnes is delivered into the custody of District Officer Jón Jónsdóttir. She awaits her sentence at his home under the watchful eyes of his wife Margrét and their daughters Steinvör (Steina) and Sigurlaug (Lauga). Agnes prepares for death by recounting her story to her spiritual advisor, Assistant Reverend Thorvardur Jónsson (Tóti).

The focus of the novel is not on the crime itself – Agnes has already been convicted and is waiting to die – the question is whether she was fairly judged. The reliability of characters’ perceptions of events and of one another are explored through different narrative perspectives. There is no single authoritative voice in the novel, as it alternates between first-person narration by Agnes, and third-person narration, primarily from the perspectives of Tóti and Margrét. Switching between perspectives creates suspense and prevents the reader from getting too engrossed or dependant on one narrator. The prejudices of other characters and the perception of Agnes as a hardened criminal are explored through third-person narration. First-person narration allows Agnes to intimately and selectively convey her experience to other characters, and to convey to the reader her fears of sharing those experiences.

The emotive and intimate exchanges between Agnes and her captors contrasts heavily to the historical documents that open each chapter of the book. The documents add an authenticity and depth to the story while also dehumanising and damning Agnes and her co-accused. The absolute damnation by the courts is conveyed at the outset in letters from District Commissioner Björn Blöndal, who writes ‘…after the anticipated authorisation from the Supreme Court in Copenhagen, I intend to execute the Illugastadir murderers’.  The bleakness of Agnes’ existence is exemplified through court documentation of her meagre belongings, which include ‘a white sack with useless odds and ends in it’ and ‘an old shift of faded blue’. The public perception of Agnes as a calculated murderer is communicated through the poems of Poet-Rósa, which include the lines ‘For you have stolen with your scheming / he who gave my life meaning, / and thrown your life to the Devil to deal.’

While Agnes’ story is bleak, Burial Rites is by no means a depressing read, as hope is offered by questioning those in power and by providing a voice to the powerless. Hannah Kent is currently working on her second book, a historical novel set in 19th-century Ireland.

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‘When others around us rise up, we rise up.’ Lessons learnt and inspiration gained from The Emerging Writers’ Festival

 

‘It’s easier to write a bad first draft and make it better than to face a blank page.’  Krissy Kneen, The 5×5 Rules of Writing

Getting retrenched from my job could have been a soul-destroying experience, but instead I viewed it as an opportunity to become active in the Melbourne literary scene again. I joined Twitter. I started a blog. I got tickets for some of the free Emerging Writers’ Festival events. A friend recommended I answer the call-out for the EWF blogging partners. I was only new to the blogging scene, but I applied anyway. I’m sure the EWF crew would have known a bunch of bloggers who they could have called upon to write blogs for the festival, but they took a chance on me, and I’m thankful.

‘You’re only going to do better if you write.’  Martin McKenzie-Murray, Emerging Q&A

The Opening Night Extravaganza blew my mind. Maxine Beneba Clarke told everyone that it took her 7-10 years to write Foreign Soil, Miles Allinson revealed that it took him 6 years to write his manuscript, and The Lord Mayor of Melbourne, Robert Doyle, paid tribute to the ‘agonising endeavour of writing’. The fact that it took years for these authors to finish their work wasn’t surprising. That they were open and honest about it was. Some writers may have found these sentiments confronting, but it gave me a sense of relief. The Emerging Writers’ Festival completely dispelled the notion of the effortless ‘overnight success’. These writers work hard.

‘The only way you can surprise a reader is to surprise yourself.’ – Alec Patric, The Art of the Short Story

It was inspiring to watch the ‘You Are Here’ panel, as audience members flung their hands up and took to the stage to praise the ‘beautiful love-in’ environment of the festival, share the grief of letting go of a manuscript, celebrate the success of being the ‘pick of the week’ in The Age, or give a shout-out to their literary crushes. Before I had the chance to assemble the eleventy-million dot-points as to why it wasn’t a good idea, I took to the stage to be part of the last panel. My introduction as one of the four blogging partners was met with loud cheers from the ridiculously supportive audience. So, what did I do to capitalise on this rare opportunity? I announced that I had an intense fear of public speaking.

‘Write from the soul.’ – Hannah Kent, The 5×5 Rules of Writing

I returned to my seat and shakily packed my things. I looked up to see someone approach me. She introduced herself as Meghan Brewster, one of the official blogging partners. It was really nice to meet her. We bumped into each other again at the Emerging Q&A session, and headed to Night of the Living Novellas together. It was just as inspiring to talk with other emerging artists, as it was to listen to the panellists. It was pretty amazing to be in the same room as other emerging artists.

‘There is no supporter as strong as you. You are the festival and this festival is you … we’re just here to get you going.’ – Sam Twyford-Moore, Opening Night Extravaganza

I learned a lot from The Emerging Writers’ Festival. I am more determined to get my novel-length manuscript where I want it to be, but this time I will make a point to celebrate the achievements at the end of each day, and to accept the difficulties as part of, rather than an inhibitor of, the process. I spent breaks in between panels jotting down (somewhat illegible) notes of short story ideas. Sam Twyford-Moore passionately conveyed the importance of The Emerging Writers’ Festival as an event for emerging writers ‘at a point when they are likely to give up, to stop them from giving up’.

When others around us rise up, we rise up.’  Maxine Beneba Clarke, The 5×5 Rules of Writing

I’m not giving up. I have the EWF crew and my fellow emerging artists to thank for that.