Hannah Kent's first novel, Burial Rites, was published this month by Little, Brown. I don't remember reading an early review or putting it on my holds list, but I must've done both, because it showed up in my box last Wednesday.
Once I had a chance to flip through it, I decided I wasn't going to like it. It's a fictionalized account of the months leading up to the 1830 beheading of Agnes Magnusdottir, the last person ever to be executed in Iceland. It uses available documentary evidence to provide the rough outline of a detailed story purporting to explain the circumstances surrounding Agnes's crime, the murder of the landowner for whom she worked as a servant. Using the character of a priest to draw out the story, Kent provides a fairly explicit and yet hum-drum view of the lives of poor women in nineteenth-century Iceland, which, of course, were no less difficult than the lives of poor women in any other part of the world in that era.
In other words, the conceit is identical to that used by Margaret Atwood in the brilliant Alias Grace, the story of a 19th-century Canadian servant sentenced to death for murdering her master. It's pretty audacious to blatantly imitate one of our greatest living authors, and I expected Kent to suffer in comparison.
I shall now eat my words.
Kent's writing has a ways to go before she reaches Atwoodian levels of virtuosity, but her story telling instincts more than make up for it. In any case, Kent's straight-forward, one might say plain, style does service to her characters, people who, though literate and intelligent, live lives much too difficult and exhausting to engage in artistic pursuits that don't serve some useful purpose on the farm.
I found myself drawn into the details of running a farm in pre-Industrial Revolution Iceland, a climate an outsider might find much too forbidding to be worth the effort. From the window pane made of a pig bladder to the sleeping arrangements in the badstofa, Kent, herself an Australian, provides realistic but not excessive detail of what it meant to live and farm in a region where the weather can kill you 9 months out of the year.
And, more urgently, Kent tells the story that could belong to any poor woman servant from any era, including our own, subject to the whims of her "betters" and unable to fully act on her own desires and needs. The danger of stories like Burial Rites and Alias Grace is the temptation to classify these stories exclusively as horrors from the past. "That doesn't happen now," we tell ourselves. Yet of course it does. The bare fact of poverty in the 21st-century United States puts one at risk of victimization and exploitation; the risks for poor women are double. So when we read novels like Burial Rites, although it's oh so tempting to classify it merely as historical fiction, Agnes herself begs us to examine our own world in search of injustice and exploitation that, though perhaps better camouflaged, is no less prevalent. This is where Kent's novel truly succeeds.