Join Heather online for the upcoming season of the Icelandic Roots Book Club. The first book this Fall is Burial Rites by Hannah Kent. Heather presents a superb introduction to Hannah's book. A link to the Book Club will be sent out to Icelandic Roots Members the day prior to the book club meeting. Watch your inbox on October 4th and join us on October 5th!
By Heather Goodman Lytwyn
Burial Rites, by Hannah Kent, was inspired by historical events that began in northern Iceland in 1828. The seeds of this novel began in 2002 when the author was on an exchange program. It was first published in 2013 and became part of Hannah’s Ph.D. from the University of Flinders in Australia, where she taught creative writing. Several members of Icelandic Roots identified this as one of their favorite books. I look forward to hearing if this is as true for you as it is for me.
Some Things I loved about Burial Rites So much was seamlessly woven into the story, making it continually believable. As you read, do any of these things resonate with you?
Hannah’s vivid use of figurative language: “They have strapped me to the saddle like a corpse being taken to the burial ground.” (p. 36) “She’s a landless work maid raised on a porridge of moss and poverty” (p. 52) “…the days seem longer, even as the light flees this country like a whipped dog.” (p. 235) “Her poetry made lamps out of people.” (p. 236), etc.
The detailed and precise research: the translated legal documents; reference to the Hidden People; the vivid description of the annual work slaughtering sheep; superstitions and bad omens; reverence for poetry; knitting in the baꝺstofa; weevils in the flour; whey for the servants, and coffee for the privileged, etc.
The characters & events were believable and engaging. One would expect a family to fear sharing their house with a convicted murderer. We were not surprised by the political pressure to conform to the status quo evident by Blöndal’s power and his need to please those above him. Even the complicated character of Natan is credible: his seductive skills in gaining the trust of others to cure their ills, his ability to seduce those most vulnerable, and his unpredictable cruelty. Agnes’s feelings of abandonment and despair were compelling.
The poignant ending that takes us right there, breathing the same cold air.
The Rotary Club Hannah applied to be part of the Rotary Club exchange program after graduating from grade 12. Her enthusiasm to live where there was snow influenced her three choices: Iceland, Sweden, or Switzerland. During the interview, she was asked how she felt about living with months of darkness. Her enthusiastic response to anything entirely different from her own climate in Australia may have cinched her being chosen for something that would indeed be very different from her life experiences. Perhaps it is an example of fate. She was trying to decide whether to give up her lifelong dream of becoming a writer and seek further education in a more practical field. Her trip to Iceland made that decision for her.
The Tipping Point Hannah’s host family lived in an isolated village in northern Iceland. The language was totally foreign to her; at first, she experienced feelings of alienation. She consoled herself with all the English books in the library and was inspired to write poetry about her experiences. Things turned around when a teacher gifted her a translated book of Icelandic nature poetry, causing her to explore and fall in love with the landscape. Her curiosity about Agnes Magnúsdóttir began in 2002 when a drive with her Rotary family chanced upon the story of the last woman executed in Iceland in 1830. This story fueled Hannah’s determination to learn Icelandic and as much as she could about the country’s history. She began to feel like she fit in. She encountered a willingness of the community to support her genuine interest in everything Icelandic. She has returned 4 - 5 times.
A Career is Launched Hannah thought that her passion to learn everything she could about the trial and execution of Agnes would be left behind when she returned home, but that was not the case. Instead, she felt compelled to spend two years back in Iceland diving into the legal documents about the trial and seeking out any information she could learn about Agnes’s life. She began earnestly researching the historical information about life during the early 19th century, not just in Iceland but elsewhere in Europe. She reviewed trial records, poetry, historical fiction, biographies, newspapers; anything that might help her better understand what led to Agnes’ demise. Once she felt confident she had learned all she could, she began writing her version of the story.
The research helped her fill in elements of the story that she could not prove; the conversations and details anyone writing historical fiction has to invent. In one interview, Hannah thought that instead of identifying the genre of the book as historical fiction, perhaps a better label would be Speculative Fiction. For example, mothers who were powerless and forced to give up their children because of their poverty and their station in life must have felt hopeless and, in many cases, made their children feel like they were just born to be someone’s burden and later someone’s servant. And then, like their parents, the cycle would be repeated.
How to learn more about the author In my edition of the book, there are Notes by the Author and a Reading Group Guide where I found some of my information. There are several interviews and book reviews available on YouTube that I have listed below. In one interview, when asked if Hannah read other fiction while writing, she explained that her concurrent reading of various writers prevented her from getting lost in her own perspective. When asked about her favourite authors, Hannah mentioned her diverse admiration of a wide range of authors, including Margaret Atwood and, in particular her book Alias Grace. This novel is easily compared to Burial Rites. Both are based on a true crime in which a woman is accused of murder. In both novels, the authors seemed less interested in whether or not the central character was guilty and focused more on how easy it was for people to believe each woman was a monster. Perhaps another similarity between these two books is that both authors focused on what life experiences led to a guilty verdict.
Interviews with Hannah Kent on YouTube Since I was unsuccessful in contacting the author, I was happy to find so many interviews online. If you watch several of these, it becomes apparent how exhausting the promotion of a book must be for the author. Hannah rose to the task. Even when presented with the same questions, she always gives a detailed response.
One of the challenging questions in the FAQ was: “If you were to rewrite this book, would you change anything?” I imagine most writers cannot revisit a page without rearranging something. This page, for instance, has been rewritten time and again, and only the deadline will make me stop. I believe Hannah’s word for these alterations was “tinkering.” She said she never revisited Burial Rites once it was in print. Good reminder, there comes a time to let it go. So, I will stop tinkering with this now, and look forward to listening to your thoughts on October 5.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y2en4nfjLIg is 47 minutes long and includes an intro by her editor, an excerpt read by Hannah (p. 35 – 37), and other information she shares. The tape was made on Sept. 21, 2013, by Books & Books in Florida.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q8gIC5g19oI 11 minutes where Hannah talks with journalist Rich Fahle of Bibliostar TV on May 13, 2013, in New York.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Z9Oq40v-Ms 8 minutes of an enthusiastic review by Elliot Books. Hannah does not appear.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-fBM0JtCjOc 4 minutes that includes some interesting black and white photos from the early 19th century; clips from an artsy student film using modern clothing and settings; and some info about a movie proposal starring Jennifer Lawrence and directed by the Guadagnino.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hpyAopOn2TE 30 minutes with FAQ in which Hannah responds at length to 8 questions about Burial Rites. Nice conversational style; filmed perhaps on her deck.