Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

In rural Iceland, 1829, a woman named Agnes Magnúsdóttir is sentenced to death for her part in a brutal double murder. As she awaits her execution, she is sent to board with a local family on their farm: District Officer Jón Jónsson, his wife, Margrét, and their two daughters, Steina and Lauga. Cold, intelligent and proud, Agnes is shunned as a murderess and an outcast by all. Only the Reverend Tóti, the young priest appointed to her during her last months, has any interest in divining her story. And, as the bitter winter drags on, and the family are forced to live in closer and closer confines, they and we become the audience to her strange and wary confession.

Burial Rites is the debut novel by Australian writer Hannah Kent, deputy editor of the Melbourne-based journal Kill Your Darlings. She had a dream run when the manuscript sparked an international bidding war last year, resulting in a reported seven-figure deal for the Australian, US and UK rights, and it’s easy to see why.

Great literary historical fiction generally relies on two things – world-creation and a compelling voice to guide you through. It’s a combination that should spell you into another place, the strange stuff of near-fantasy. Burial Rites has both these in spades. Kent’s nineteenth-century Iceland is assuredly and beautifully realised, full of sickening snows and cold valleys, cramped badstofas and damp crofts, whale fat smeared on wood and windows made from dried sheep’s bladders. Agnes is but one voice in the chorus, but she commands us through this strangeness with strong, dark grace. The mystery of who she really is and what she really did is drip-fed to us throughout, making you want to both linger and read on impatiently.

Burial Rites, and its poetic, subsuming world, is a beautifully executed work of the genre.

Jessica Au is the editor of the Readings Monthly and an occasional bookseller down at Readings St Kilda.