In the wake of this talented writer’s new novel Devotion, for this week’s Throwback Thursday I decided to look at her debut novel Burial Rites. Set in Iceland in 1829 and based on a true story, we follow the final days of Agnes; a young woman accused of the murder of her former master. Housed at an isolated farm until her execution, Agnes is accompanied by Tóti, a priest she has mysteriously chosen as her spiritual guardian. The family are horrified to be housing a murderer, but as time goes on and her death looms closer, they start to listen to Agnes and hear a different side to the sensationalised story they’ve accepted as truth. How can Agnes cope with her impending death and the realisation that history will define her: as a murderess, a monster, a woman without mercy?
The first thing that comes to mind when I think about this book is the stark scenery and the way it’s linked to Agnes’s emotions. She reminded me of my favourite literary heroine Jane Eyre, in that she’s so passionate, with every emotion unfiltered, raw and open for the reader to see. Jane is condemned as too passionate when she’s a child, but even though she learns to rein her emotions in as an adult, there are glimpses of her true nature in her eerie paintings and her feelings for Rochester. Jane’s warning of what happens when a women’s passions are unbound, comes in the shape of Bertha Mason, Rochester’s wife and the madwoman in the attic. Bertha acts on her feelings immediately; her anger leads to the burning of Rochester’s bed and the wounding of her brother Richard. However, in his explanation after their abandoned wedding, Rochester tells Jane of mood swings and childlike behaviour, but also hints at an unladylike lust that’s unbecoming in a wife. This is certainly implied strongly in Jean Rhys’s impressive post-colonial prequel Wide Sargasso Sea, where his wife’s enthusiasm in the bedroom feels unchaste and his claims of being duped by her family might relate more to her virginal state than her potential for insanity. Agnes is similarly passionate about her lover:
“I cannot think of what it was not to love him. To look at him and realise I had found what I had not known I was hungering for. A hunger so deep, so capable of driving me into the night, that it terrified me.”
Just as Jane’s heartbreak and spiritual battle after her flight from Thornfield is characterised by the biting wind and lack of shelter of the bleak moorland, Agnes seems so deeply in tune with her Icelandic surroundings. The claustrophobic atmosphere of her final days is heightened by being sequestered in someone else’s space and marooned in the middle of an Icelandic winter. There is nothing soft here. The relentless freezing air and sparse vegetation echo the frozen glares of the women in the family, the barren and friendless days that count down slowly without joy or pleasure to make them bearable. Both the landscape, and Agnes herself, are haunting and have stayed with me way beyond the final pages.
I love how the author plays with the idea of self and it’s construction in fiction. She takes a real person, with a real criminal case against them and starts to give them thoughts and feelings. The Agnes Magnússdóttir she could read about in records and news reports is a distant, lifeless, individual. In fact any contemporary writing about her that gives more than the bare facts, is only one person’s idea of who she was and what her motivations might have been. It’s a false self and what Kent tries to do is breathe life into Agnes, to create a real person with thoughts and feelings, someone we can perhaps start to understand and empathise with. I love though how Agnes has an awareness of this and how even in Kent’s story, she isn’t real. She explains that people will think they have a sense of who she is through her perceived actions, but that isn’t her. She knows she will be labelled and for some people that will forever define her, but only she knows her true character and her true motivations. How can a woman hope to survive when her very life is dependent on the stories told about her by others, rather than her own word?
“They will see the whore, the madwoman, the murderess, the female dripping blood into the grass and laughing with her mouth choked with dirt. They will say “Agnes” and see the spider, the witch caught in the webbing of her own fateful weaving. They might see the lamb circled by ravens, bleating for a lost mother. But they will not see me. I will not be there.”
Paperback Published by Picador 27th Feb 2014
Meet The Author
Hannah Kent’s first novel, the international bestseller, BURIAL RITES, was translated into over 30 languages and won the ABIA Literary Fiction Book of the Year, the Indie Awards Debut Fiction Book of the Year, the Prix Critiqueslibres Découvrir Étranger, the Booktopia People’s Choice Award, the ABA Nielsen Bookdata Booksellers’ Choice Award and the Victorian Premier’s People’s Choice Award. It was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction and the Guardian First Book Award, the Stella Prize and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, amongst others. It is currently being adapted for film by Sony TriStar.
Hannah’s second novel, THE GOOD PEOPLE, was translated into 10 languages and shortlisted for the Walter Scott Award for Historical Fiction, the Indie Books Award for Literary Fiction, the ABIA Literary Fiction Book of the Year and the Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction. It is currently being adapted for film by Aquarius Productions.
DEVOTION, Hannah’s third novel, will be published in November 2021 (Australia) and February 2022 (UK & Ireland) by Picador.
Hannah’s original feature film, Run Rabbit Run, will be directed by Daina Reid (The Handmaid’s Tale) and produced by Carver and XYZ Films. It was launched at the Cannes 2020 virtual market where STX Entertainment took world rights.
Hannah co-founded the Australian literary publication Kill Your Darlings. She has written for The New York Times, The Saturday Paper, The Guardian, the Age, the Sydney Morning Herald, Meanjin, Qantas Magazine and LitHub.
Hannah lives and works on Peramangk country near Adelaide, Australia.