In 1829 Agnes Magnúsdóttir and two others are condemned to death for murder and arson. Lacking a suitable prison, Agnes is held in the intimate, domestic setting of a family farm to await her execution, where she inspires both fear and fascination in its inhabitants, and is visited by the young priest she has chosen to be in charge of her salvation. Agnes’ story is told from a variety of perspectives, the most powerful of which is her own. From the outset we are told that there is more to this tale than meets the eye, all of which is gradually revealed as winter and the execution date draw closer. Burial Rites is a heady concoction of love, hate, claustrophobia and betrayal set against the backdrop of a bleak and harsh northern landscape.
It is often the emotion of Burial Rites, more so than its events, that is so compelling. Much of the book’s intensity lies in its setting. Iceland is a country that seems more foreign than most to readers in the United Kingdom, a country whose landscape and culture are even less familiar nearly two hundred years ago. In a land where the sun never sets during summer and barely rises in winter, where the climate makes the line between life and death that much thinner, the passions, hatreds and lives of its people seem to burn that much brighter; they are “candle flames, greasy bright, fluttering in the darkness and the howl of the wind.” Images of flames and fire are used throughout the novel, especially in relation to the passion between Agnes and her lover Natan: “The weight of his fingers on mine, like a bird landing on a branch. It was the drop of the match. I did not realise that we were surrounded by tinder until I felt it burst into flames.” Those figurative fires are so intense that they eventually set light to the physical world, the burning farmhouse being one of the most enduring images of the novel. By linking the execution with winter, Kent links the fading of light, warmth and life with the fading of Agnes herself.
Revealing her story in small chunks draws the reader onwards and adds to the easy flow of the text. Weak points in Burial Rites’ narrative style or characterisation are rare. If one consequence of using multiple narrators is a failure to focus fully on Agnes, and perhaps weakening the story, such a strategy also allows us to see events from all sides. Ultimately this is a matter of opinion. Whilst Kent’s narrative style is emotionally engaging, the plot can let the book down. Whilst the desire to discover what really happened keeps us turning pages, such a highly charged build up can leave us feeling disappointed at actual events. The murders themselves cannot match the intensity of the rest of the book, and likewise the overall finale seems to lack punch when compared with what preceded it. It is an event which should have stay with the reader long after reading but instead is quickly forgotten. Much like a monster under the bed that is terrifying only as a shadow, its power shrinks when brought into the light.
Despite these few flaws, Burial Rites is an exceptional first novel and an extremely absorbing read. A story of love and hate, of light and dark, fire and ice, Kent’s novel is about judgement, betrayal and ultimately humanity. The candle flame that burns brighter in darkness.