'Burial Rites' author Hannah Kent finds mystery in Iceland
Chronicling the Chill of 1820s Iceland in 'Burial Rites,' Australian author Hannah Kent finds deep humanity, for better and worse, in a faraway isle.
Australian author Hannah Kent has a single novel to her name, which isn't surprising for a woman who hasn't yet reached her thirties. But in other ways, she's managing to bypass expectations.Skip to next paragraph
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For one thing, the novel, "Burial Rites," has nothing to do with Australia. It's set in Iceland of the 1820s and 1830s and tracks the real-life story of a young woman facing her execution.
For another, the novel is a sensation among book reviewers drawn to its depiction of the struggles of a gritty people and a doomed woman amid a harsh landscape. "Gorgeously atmospheric," declared The New Yorker, and the Sunday Times in the U.K. called it "a remarkable achievement" on par with the work of Margaret Atwood.
Here in the pages of the Monitor, I praised the "haunting elegance" of an "intense exploration of a young woman's mind, an insular community's fears, and the destructive power of those who can entrance others."
In an interview, Kent talked about the horrific events that inspired her work, the role of Iceland as a character in the novel, and humanity's ever-present rush to judgment.
Q: What's the true-life story behind "Burial Rites" and how did you come across it?
A: Ten years ago, I lived in Iceland for 12 months as a Rotary exchange student.
The town that hosted me was in the north of the country, and turned out to be located quite close to the site of Iceland’s last execution. A few months after I arrived, my host parents drove me past this site and told me a little about the 1828 murders that had resulted in two people being beheaded there.
Two men had been killed as they lay sleeping in a remote farmhouse, ostensibly because the perpetrators wished to rob them. As my curiosity about these events deepened, however, and as I continued to find out more about the case, I realized that the crime was much more complicated than it originally seemed, and that the motives of the two people who were convicted for the murders might have been deeply complex.
Q: What about the case did you want to unravel in the novel?
A: One reason the two men might have been killed is because of money. But their murders seemed also to have been the tragic culmination of a story of betrayal, ambition, unrequited love, poverty, and loneliness.
Most writers are drawn to what is unknown, rather than what is clear in any tale. The silences in this particular story were what held the greatest appeal for me.
I found that the largest gaps in the story surrounded the life, character and actions of Agnes Magnusdottir, the woman who was convicted of the murders alongside the 17-year-old Fridrik Sigurdsson. Where I hoped to find unbiased consideration and exploration of her early life and the circumstances that had contributed towards her involvement, I found only the caricature of an inherently wicked woman, hell-bent on revenge.
There was no ambiguity in any representation of her person, only an assumption that – because she was not a victim, and because she was different – she was unequivocally monstrous. A desire to subvert this popular opinion and provide a more contextual and complex representation of Agnes led to my decision to write "Burial Rites."
Q: Do you think of the novel as a mystery in the traditional sense?
Yes, it is a mystery, as all novels are. There are secrets at the heart of every story; there is something that must be uncovered or discovered, both by the reader and by the characters.