'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.

Hannah Kent says she first became interested in an historic crime committed in 1800s Iceland when she lived in the island nation as an exchange student.

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.

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.

But I believe the mystery lies more in characters than in the plot. I think of the novel as a whydunnit, rather than a whodunnit. The why is so much more interesting. How did a 33-year-old woman, in possession of a fine intelligence and known to be "very well brought up," find herself being tried for the brutal murder of her employer? Why was her community so swift to condemn her?

The mystery at the center of "Burial Rites" is not who killed whom on the night of March 13, 1828. It is the mystery each of us encounters: Can we every truly know another? Can we ever truly know ourselves?
Q: Iceland is a major character in itself. What do you hope readers pick up about that place and that time?
A: I have a deep and ongoing love of Iceland, particular the landscape, and when writing "Burial Rites" I was constantly trying to see whether I could distill its extraordinary and ineffable qualities into a kind of poetry.

The climate and the natural world there shapes you in ways that they do not in other countries. The characters in "Burial Rites" are products of their environment, and their awareness of and subordination to the landscape and its beauty and hostility is necessary.
Q: Some of the characters in the novel seem tough and brittle, chilled and perhaps unforgiving. Is that a fair assessment? If so, do you think this is a matter of their living in that time and place?
A: I do believe that some of the characters’ qualities are a direct consequence of their being reared in that time and place.

For instance, many of them possess a certain stoicism, and that is a characteristic I continue to see in contemporary Icelanders. To survive in that landscape requires a phlegmatic disposition. Many of them have a huge appreciation and love of literature, and that is something that I feel is shared by many Icelanders: The country’s lifeblood is story.

But I do not think that the unforgiving actions or words spoken by certain characters are indicative of that historical period or of Iceland. In fact, they're more suggestive of an attitude that can be found the world over.

Look at how swift we can be to condemn those who behave outside accepted social norms? We can be just as judgmental, just as inclined to stereotype those we fear. This is a universal and sadly timeless behavior.
Q: You're Australian. Do you see any connections here to your own country's past?
A: Yes and no. I see a certain connection to Australians' attitude and relationship towards our natural landscape: We too live in a country that can be simultaneously beautiful and hostile.

I possibly drew on that a little, but probably not consciously.
Q: What do you hope the novel makes readers think about? Do you feel like you're encouraging a certain kind of mood or feeling?
A: The story of Agnes Magnusdottir consumed me for years and years, and I have been both moved and changed by my research into her life and the events in 1828 and 1830.

I hope that readers will be similarly moved, but I would never say I hope they feel one way or another. Much of the joy of reading comes from the way a novel's story intersects with our own lives and causes us to reflect on various facets of both.
Q: What's next for you?
A: I'm currently researching my next book, which will be set in Ireland in the early 19th century. I've always been very interested in superstition and folklore, and this next novel will hopefully look at the way in which disempowered individuals have used superstitious beliefs to emancipate themselves and subjugate others. I want to explore the allure and consequences of this.

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