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Novel set in ICELAND (“a foreign world”)

29th December 2013

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent. Novel set in Iceland.

1447233166.01.ZTZZZZZZFiction can provide us with the chance to travel in time as well as in space, on a double trip as it were, and Hannah Kent’s first novel, Burial Rites, the story of a serving woman condemned to death following a double murder, is a good example of this. It’s set in 19th century Iceland, on an isolated farm in rural Kornsa, which places it firmly outside the radar of most readers beyond the corridors of Reykjavik university’s history faculty. Iceland has always been a literary locus for me, from the sagas, which I read as a child (honestly), to Letters from Iceland by WH Auden and Louis MacNeice, with its pioneering, slightly disgruntled air. Before Bjork came along to shake my ideas up, I’d always thought of it as the place where people eat strawberry soup, but there’s not a lot of strawberry soup, or fruit of any kind, in Kent’s novel. It’s a dour, harsh, salty world, and Kent makes the most of the sheer difficulty of living there, ‘a peat bog of poverty’, as Agnes, the condemned woman and heroine, describes it. The novel is filled to bursting point with detail of just how hard it is to eke any comfort from the weather, and just about everything else, including love and human warmth. It’s a survival manual for time travellers.

Agnes, for reasons of economy as much as anything else, is billeted on the family of the District Officer by the villain of the piece, the pompous, self-righteous District Commissioner, who’s presented with caricatural glee by the author. The condemned woman is greeted with a mixture of hostility, resentment and curiosity, exacerbated by her own behaviour, which is both distant and unrepentant. Her time is taken up by performing the humblest, most squalid household and farmyard chores and by visits from the man she has chosen to be her confessor, the inexperienced young Reverend Tóti , who helped her across a river some years before and has never been forgotten. The bulk of the novel is concerned with Agnes’ relationships with the family, primarily the wife and mother, Margrét, and with Tóti, through the two of whom she tells her story. It’s a sorry tale and the fact that it is based on actual events, as the novelist informs us in her afterword, only makes it sorrier.

What Agnes doesn’t tell them, haltingly at first and then, towards the end of the novel, in a long and, to my mind, rather rushed monologue to Margrét, she confesses directly to the reader. It’s Agnes’ story, and the novel moves from the first-person present-tense narration of Agnes to a third-person narration in which the author is nonetheless privy to the emotions and thoughts of the other main characters. The fact that Agnes addresses the reader in such an unmediated and privileged fashion, though, turns out to be a mixed blessing, because Kent has chosen to give the woman a lyrical voice that overflows incessantly into hyperbole and bathos. She’s a great one for over-extended metaphor: “My tongue feels so tired; it slumps in my mouth like a dead bird, all damp feathers, in between the stones of my teeth.” Barely a page goes by without mention of stones and ravens, as though repetition were all it took to charge an object with symbolic force. It’s a sign, I think, of the author’s inexperience, and also of her background as a creative writing student, that so much of Agnes’ thought is couched in the attention-seeking language of similitude: “Autumn fell upon the valley like a gasp”. Well, yes, but how, exactly? I found myself itching to red-pencil whole sentences…

The novel as a whole is straining to have the sombre weight of the sagas to which it implicitly and, at times, explicitly refers, if not by name, by literary devices like repetition. But it’s also modern, with a modern sensibility that’s attentive to the all-too-often unheard – or unheeded – voice of women. For me, this mixture doesn’t always work, although the book is certainly at its strongest in its characterisation of women, particularly, I found, Margrét. The reverend and the lover, both key figures, were shadowy to me, while the other men remained two-dimensional.

It’s a foreign world in every way, and the novel is at pains to remind us of this. Not a paragraph goes by without some reference to the strangeness of it all, despite the fact that it isn’t at all strange to the novel’s characters: they live there, after all. The book is full of examples of what I think of as the Bakelite Fallacy, that constant offering of time- or place-specific particulars that would pass unnoticed by the characters, as part of their everyday existence, but that help to fix the other world in the reader’s mind. It does this well, at times extremely well, but at the cost – for this reader – of a fatal loss of credibility.

Charles Lambert for the TripFiction Team. Charles is an author based in Italy and has written several novels set in Rome (and of course) they are hugely evocative of locale. We currently feature Any Human Face and The View from the TowerYou can find about more about Charles via Twitter and subscribe to his blog.

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