Burial Rites is as much a dark love letter to the landscape of Iceland as it is to the life of Agnes Magnúsdóttir

Hannah Kent is an Australian writer. Burial Rites is her first novel.

Since we know the end from the beginning, we follow the enthralling story of Agnes, her past, her secrets, her upbringing. When you set out to write about her, did you know much about the real Agnes and her personality?

When I began researching Burial Rites, I knew next to nothing about Agnes. I had a basic understanding of her role in the 1828 murders at Illugastadir, but I knew nothing of her character, or her life outside a context of crime. In many of the historical records I found, Agnes seemed present only as a stereotype – an unequivocally monstrous woman with a thirst for revenge. It was the absence of any complexity or humanity that I found most compelling. My decision to write this book came from a desire to find out Agnes’s personal story, the hidden life behind the hackneyed cliché of an evil woman. I wanted to gain an understanding of Agnes as the woman she felt herself to be.

The novel beautifully conveys a haunting sense of place. How meaningful is this element in your work?

Burial Rites is as much a dark love letter to the landscape of Iceland as it is to the life of Agnes Magnúsdóttir. When I lived in Iceland I fell in love with the countryside, and this novel is – in many ways – my attempt to distill the ineffable beauty of that place into poetry. It’s my clumsy hymn to the mountains, light, hostility and grace of Iceland.

I always knew that place would need to have extraordinary presence in the lives of my characters. The weather, seasons and the landscape shape their days, and – to a certain extent – their fates. Iceland, in the severity of its weather, the isolation and vulnerability it imposes on its people, forges certain traits in my characters. It is responsible for Margrét’s stoicism, Agnes’s loneliness, and Tóti’s love of beauty. The American writer Ron Rash has said that he believes ‘landscape is destiny’, and this is true of the characters in Burial Rites.

The only person to whom Agnes really opens up about her life is the reverend, who at first insists on her need to be absolved. In your research, did you find that religion had an important influence on people’s life in early 19th century Iceland?

I did find that, although not necessarily for the reasons one might assume. Religion in the 19th century not only provided Icelanders with spiritual guidance, but also many crucial social services. In rural communities where there were no workhouses or orphanages, the church managed problems of poverty, illegitimacy and broken families by distributing paupers and orphans amongst parishioners, and separating impoverished families to prevent more dependent children. The church was also responsible for most of the bureaucratic administration relating to a community, not only documenting births and marriages, but also keeping annual censuses and noting the traffic of workers between parishes. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the church was largely responsible for the education of Icelanders. There was only one formal school in Iceland in the early 19th century, and yet the vast majority of people were highly literate, thanks to the teaching and examination provided and supervised by parish priests. In many ways, the greatest support religion provided to 19th-century Icelanders was of a social, rather than spiritual kind.

The narration is made of different voices: the voice of Agnes narrating her story from her own point of view, and the voice of a third-person narrator. Why did you choose to work with these two alternate voices?

I knew early on that Agnes would need to speak in first person. As a woman who was largely silenced in her own lifetime, any work that sought to explore her private story (albeit through fiction) would necessarily need to create space for her voice, or an approximation of it.

I always knew that, as a woman excluded from dominant rhetorical forms of speech, Agnes would communicate as someone ‘outside language’. It’s her alienation from public forms of communication and representation which accounts for her private lyricism. Where the ‘voice’ of the historical record is dry, authoritative and plain-speaking, Agnes’s voice is invested with emotion, symbolism and imagery.

The decision to place Agnes’s first person voice alongside third person narration was not only to draw attention to Agnes’s interiority and her poetic way of seeing the world, but also to examine her unreliability. I was interested in exploring the difference between what Agnes thinks to herself privately, and what she actually says aloud. I wanted – in these multiple voices – to suggest that Agnes is contradictory, manipulative and untrustworthy, but to also illustrate that she has ample reason for being that way.

Were you influenced in any way by Icelandic authors or writings, for example Icelandic sagas?

I read the work of Halldor Laxness in translation, many of the sagas, and some other work by Icelanders when writing this novel. Not only were these books useful sources of information regarding the Icelandic landscape, psyche and history, but they also gave me an appreciation of Icelandic identity and the way in which literature is central to it.

Laxdaela Saga has particular importance in Burial Rites. There are some interesting parallels to Agnes’s story in that saga, and, reading it, I was struck by the possibility that Agnes, in her own lifetime, might have recognised those same similarities. She certainly would have been familiar with it. This is why it is referenced throughout Burial Rites.

In an interview he gave for Feedbooks, Icelandic author Hallgrímur Helgason said that Iceland was deeply rooted in a culture of silence. Do you agree? 

I’m not quite sure if I have the authority to answer this question, not being an Icelander myself. As an outsider looking in, I can certainly see that this statement might be true on a basic level. But then, there are many different kinds of silence, and they may be present for different reasons. It seems to me that Iceland is indeed rooted in a culture of silence, but that it is the silence of the deeply private and reflective, rather than the silence of the censorious.