Hannah Kent 2013. Burial Rites. Sydney: Picador. 338 pp.

Although based on actual historical events and people, this is still very much a novel. On the face of it, Agnes Magnúsdóttir, co-accused of murder of two men, is the principal character whose story is slowly revealed. However in my mind the harsh Iceland of the 1800s and Icelanders themselves overwhelmingly leave the most lasting impression. In that spirit, a few observations on Iceland and Icelanders of the era are appropriate:

Nearly all Icelanders have been literate since about 1800 (as Hannah Kent tells us in closing). By comparison, in Great Britain at about the same time 53% of the population was literate according to Max Roser. (I haven’t found historical statistics for Australia.)

The final execution in Iceland was in 1830, the execution that is the subject of this novel. Capital punishment was abolished for most offences in Iceland in 1869 and abolished completely in 1928. In Australia the final execution took place in 1967 (accompanied by wide public outrage that ensured final repeal). Infamously, parts of the USA still think it is a good idea. And we won’t even talk about Saudi Arabia.

The events related in this book take place soon after the eruption of the volcano Laki in 1783, which resulted in the death of 80% of livestock and starvation of 25% of the human population. Iceland itself is of relatively recent origin (20 milliion years) and the population has suffered frequent natural disasters.

It would be interesting to seek out discussions of if, and if so how, the harsh environment might have promoted progressive social attitudes in Icelanders sooner than in many peoples elsewhere. Another time…

Back to the novel. Hannah Kent’s sympathetic portrayal of Agnes Magnúsdóttir as a victim of injustice is not universally shared so the historical evidence must be lacking. (Evidently modern Icelanders still relate to the events of the novel, which have been the subject of film and of other books. Perhaps a moment in history where the culture of popular opinion and historical facts collide, akin to Ned Kelly in Australia?) This novel is an account of Agnes that is convincing and plausible, but not necessarily accurate (as Hannah Kent admits in her Author’s Notes, pp. 333-335). I would warm to the novel more if the portrayal of Agnes was supported by historical evidence. But then it is a novel.

Burial Rites could be interpreted as a celebration of relationships and how they build even (especially?) in the most adverse circumstances. As, for example, between Agnes and the rural family who house her between her conviction and execution. And as between Agnes and Natan Ketilsson, her lover and alleged murder victim. But the depiction of life in 1800s Iceland is vivid, detailed and convincing (and evidently based on much historical research by the author), so much so that Iceland itself emerges strongly as a character in the novel. And to me, the dominant one. I read Burial Rites as a celebration of how humans have not only survived in the most adverse environments and circumstances, but, in many parts of the world, managed to also build increasingly progressive societies with many morally sound characteristics. Despite regular backwards steps, the overall trend so far seems clear (see Steven Pinker The Better Angels of our Nature; link to come).

Kate, whose copy of Burial Rites I read, also pointed me towards these splendid complementary recordings of the Sagas by Richard Fidler in conversation with Kari Gislason on ABC Radio National.