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My Dark Love Letter to Iceland: Hannah Kent on "Burial Rites"



Hannah_kent

Ubiquitous darkness permeates Hannah Kent’s debut novel--the harsh, bleak landscape is certainly not softened by the storyline: Burial Rites (our Best of the Month debut spotlight pick) is the tale of the last woman to be publicly executed in Iceland. Despite this gloomy outset, Hannah Kent’s elegant prose manifests an obvious love for darkness, and the effect is riveting. Burial Rites is based on the life of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, a servant charged with the brutal murder of her master in 1828. Agnes is then forced to await her execution at an isolated farm with a terrified family that resents housing her.

As an anxious young priest attempts to help her through her final weeks, Agnes slowly unveils the details of the extraordinary events that have led to her current, dismal position, evoking the family’s sympathy and recognition of her humanity. Burial Rites is the poignant tale of a young woman trying to write the story of who she really is, against the backdrop of a society, bred as harsh as the environment, determined to see her as a heinous murderess.

Kent took the time to answer a few of our questions about her book, her passion for Iceland, and what it took to write a debut novel with such strong historical influences.


The setting in this novel has a pervasive presence--it comes to life for the reader as much as any character. What do you want this book to say about Iceland? What role did your personal experiences in Iceland play while you were writing Burial Rites?

Burial Rites is my dark love letter to Iceland. While the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir has always haunted me, I also wrote this novel in an attempt to articulate the nature of Iceland’s grip on my heart. I wanted to see if I couldn't describe and honor a landscape that, in so many ways, is indescribable. Anyone who has visited Iceland will understand that one of the reasons the landscape is so memorable is because of its ineffability. There is simply no other place on earth like it and when I lived there it got completely under my skin. I had never known that it was possible to feel something of a spiritual connection to a landscape before, but I found an emotional and creative sanctuary amongst Iceland's mountains, and the heavy skies over its glassy fjords, its northern lights, and the wind, shrieking, that lifts the snow from the ground. Perhaps it sounds quite mad, but I fell in love with the place. I wanted to distill my own experience of Iceland into a kind of poetry. I wanted to show readers just how beautiful and hostile and unique this place is.

The representation of Iceland in Burial Rites was also a necessary inclusion. When I lived in that country I saw for myself how the characters of those I knew were formed by the landscape as much as any other influence. The characters in Burial Rites are products of the north country, with its sweeping valleys, and vast skies interrupted only by the snow-covered mountains. They fight it, they love it, they wrestle a life out of it. Margret's stoicism, Toti's spiritual earnestness, Agnes's steeliness--these qualities have been given to them by the land they live in.

What was the most surprising thing that you learned in your research for this book?

There were a great many things that surprised me in my research for Burial Rites. I spent approximately two years reading everything I could get my hands on about nineteenth-century Iceland--history books, memoirs, fiction, poetry, recipes for moss porridge and blood sausage, academic articles on sheep grazing, statistics on infant mortality--and each source deepened my understanding of that time. A lot of the surprising facts about domestic life at that time came from the journals of British scientists who travelled to Iceland in the early 1800s to study the geysers. They commented on how some families stuffed their pillows with seaweed, how the scratching of flea bites by the people they stayed with kept them awake at night, how some farmers stored their urine to clean wool! I loved these journals for the way they vivified life back then.

The greatest surprises I encountered were probably when I was finally able to access biographical information about Agnes Magnúsdóttir in ministerial books, parish records and censuses. I was not struck so much by the information itself, but how accurate many of my guesses--informed only by very general research into Iceland--about her early life had been. It restored my faith in intuition.

Burial Rites has a lot of rich, historical characters. How much of it came from research and how much from your own imagination?

I don't think I could accurately draw a clear line between what is fact and what is fiction in Burial Rites: the waters are muddied, particularly when it comes to characters. Every firm fact about a character that I came across in my research has been honored in the novel, even when it would have been easier to ignore it. When historical accounts of characters differed, I used my broader research into Iceland at that time to choose the most logical or likely option. It was only in the lacunae of the records that I felt relatively free to invent. Even still, every aspect of characterization--even with those who I discovered precious little about--in Burial Rites is rooted to my research. Natan's character was contrived after reading a great many stories about him from local histories. The dynamic between the two sisters in the novel can be traced back to a particular census record that compares their behavior at home and literacy levels. The inexperience of the priest is factual, as is Agnes's unusual intelligence and love of poetry. The character of Margret was suggested by her age, which I discovered in a ministerial book. I asked myself what events and hardships a woman of her years might have experienced in Iceland at that time, and what impact these might have had on her outlook on life. Every character's qualities are tethered to one source of information or another.

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You alternate between first- and third-person narrative modes, and the juxtaposition seems to separate Agnes from the people around her, making her isolation even more pronounced. Did you set up the story with this idea in mind, or did you have a different motivation for this style of narration?

My decision to include Agnes's first-person voice alongside a third-person narration came about for three reasons. The first was my desire to counter the popular image of Agnes as a cold-blooded, unequivocally evil monster. I wanted to explore her humanity and her ambiguity, which I saw as inseparable and certain. By positioning her private ruminations alongside third-person sections of dialogue, I thought I could suggest a degree of unreliability and ambiguity that doesn't stem from monstrousness, but rather from her need for self-preservation. It also allowed me to show that Agnes, as flawed as she is and no matter how others regard her, doesn't think of herself as a monster.

The second reason is to show just how excluded Agnes was from the dominant patriarchal mode of formal rhetorical discourse. She had no means to publicly author her own identity, so she does it privately, 'outside' language--hence the stylistic difference between the way Agnes relates her experiences, and the dry, bureaucratic language of the authorities who record and judge her crime. She's been formally silenced, and her story has been written for her, but I wanted to illustrate just how differently she might represent herself if given half the chance.

The third reason for Agnes's voice is slightly more personal. My very early attempts at writing this story were first-person poems, and while I soon realized that I needed to turn to prose, it seemed important that I keep that lyrical first-person voice. It had arrived so organically. There were times during the writing process when I had no idea how to structure scenes, or how I’d bring it all together, but Agnes’s voice never gave me any trouble. Her sections are largely unchanged from when they were first written.

What are you reading right now? What is your favorite book of all time?

I've just finished All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld, which I thought was formidably good. It tells the story of Jake Whyte, an Australian woman who has wound up farming sheep on a rugged, unnamed British island. Sheep are being mysteriously slaughtered in the night, a stranger is discovered in a barn, and Jake bears both physical and emotional scars from a previous life. The setting is dark and full of menace, and Wyld skillfully reveals Jake's past in a drip-feed of suspense.

I find it impossible to pick a favorite book of all time! There have been so many books that have spoken to me at different moments in my life, and to which I return for a whole multitude of reasons. I love Margaret Atwood. Louisa Alcott's Little Women was the novel I read most frequently as a teenager. Its cracked spine is testament to my love of its characters and the morality tales at its heart. To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf blew my mind apart as a seventeen-year-old--to read a book that revealed the thoughts of characters with such perspicacity, and in doing so problematized notions of perception, made a huge impact on me as a would-be writer. How can we ever know and understand those around us? How can we ever make ourselves understood?

What’s next for you?

I’m currently enjoying traveling in the UK and U.S. to help launch Burial Rites, but am also looking forward to writing a new novel. My next book will be set in Ireland (in County Kerry), which is a place I’ve long been fascinated with. Currently it’s likely to be set in the 1820s. I had a little play with superstition and folklore in Burial Rites, but this novel will be more firmly centered on the subject. I’m very interested in the ways in which disempowered individuals have used superstitious belief to emancipate themselves and subjugate others. The story I’m writing will allow me to explore the ramifications of this.


Photo credit: Nicholas Purcell

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