by Hannah Kent
They said I must die. They said that I stole the breath from men, and now they must steal mine. I imagine, then, that we are all candle flames, greasy-bright, fluttering in the darkness and the howl of the wind, and in the stillness of the room I hear footsteps, awful coming footsteps, coming to blow me out and send my life up away from me in a grey wreath of smoke.
Love is a funny thing, isn’t it? You can’t choose who you fall in love with: you may like somebody very much and appreciate all their good qualities, but this doesn’t mean that the magic will happen.
So it is with art.
I really really wanted to love Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites. I’d heard so much about it and everyone has absolutely raved about it. The premise sounded intriguing and I know nothing about Iceland, so I was looking forward to visiting a new and foreign land.
Kent’s use of language certainly is beautiful — I found the prologue magical, a wonderfully poetic opening to the book. Her depiction of rural Iceland in the 1800s allows you to step into a strange, bleak existence. You feel the struggle of life in this place, the isolation, the claustrophobic feeling of being trapped by the weather and by poverty.
The external ice of the landscape is reflected in the cool demeanour of the main character, Agnes. Her lonely childhood and her experiences working as a servant from a young age have resulted in her becoming calmly self-contained and somewhat impassive. She has never really fit in with those around her, and so her isolation goes further than that imposed by the landscape.
Convicted of murder, the authorities decide to board Agnes with a local family as she awaits her execution date. This thrusts her into a strangely intimate situation, sharing this family’s home and cares, while again not belonging and clearly unwelcome. We wonder if the family is right to fear her. We wonder if she is guilty. Slowly throughout the book, her story unfolds. At the same time, we watch the relationship between Agnes and her host family develop as they get to know her and become accustomed to her, all the while assuming she is guilty. They do not, however, know the circumstances of her guilt. Is she a victim of circumstance? Is she dangerous? Is she cursed?
As brilliant as all of this is — again, the writing was excellent, the setting fascinating (so much research must have gone into this), and slow revelation of the truth of Agnes kept me interested — and yet, I didn’t fall in love.
But perhaps that is the nature of Burial Rites. I never warmed to Agnes because that is her nature. I did not fall in love because this woman, this landscape, holds people at arm’s length.
Sometimes art doesn’t want to pull us into an embrace, sometimes it wants to hold us back, make us stop and look.
Or maybe it’s just that strange chemistry that means it either happens or it doesn’t.