First published 2013 by Picador.
We humans are so fascinated with murder and murderers. Some of us devour every jot and tittle written by salivating journalists of real murder cases; others love their crime shows, be it Underbelly or NCIS or The Doctor Blake Mysteries. The masses buy the Chopper Read books, but even people who consider themselves higher minded than that are drawn to things like Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood or whatever Helen Garner has spent years researching. Some of us think that life is so tough we only wish for light reading, and sit up late with Hamish Macbeth or Miss Fisher or some old Agatha Christie mystery. As someone sagely put it, “happiness does not sell books; murders do”.
Based on true events, Burial Rites is about a woman convicted for her role in the murder of two men; awhile ago my stepson was put away for the murder of two women. In the year and a bit since this happened I’ve pondered the subject a lot, and have passed very few days in which I did not think about it, and I think I’ve come up with an answer to why we are so interested in it. What we want to know, in a nutshell is, “what drives people to murder?” and “am I capable of doing the same if I were in their shoes?” Sub-questions I imagine Hannah Kent to have asked are “what drives a woman to murder?” and “what drives a woman to two murders?”
I read Burial Rites because I wanted the answer to a different question, “is Kent’s portrayal of a murderer accurate?” We do not really know what they are thinking, and one of the headlines which made me smile was “inside the mind of a teen killer”, as if the newspaper people can know that! They’d be ahead of me, that’s for sure. So I wanted to see if Kent could pull it off.
And bracing myself for potentially confronting material, I began to read.
The book is set in Iceland, which has been #1 on the Global Peace Index since 2008; several of the indicators are things like homicide and violent crime, numbers of jailed persons etc. Back in 1828 Iceland didn’t even have any prisons, so the Illugastadir murders would have had quite an impact on the country as a whole.
The story begins when the woman, Agnes Magnusdottir, is placed with a farming family while awaiting her execution. As the book unfolds, so does Agnes’ life story.
The book itself is very good, once of those books that when you get to the end, you want to go back to the start and read again more slowly. And I’ve always been a sucker for bleak settings with bleak weather. But I did not feel that I picked up anything new during the re-read, which was a bit of a disappointment.
Kent has done well with the portrayal of how big events like this impact small communities, and I’m talking about real life small communities, not the ones in cosy mysteries with their inordinately high murder rates!
At first I inevitably made comparisons of the Illugastadir murders with the Quorn ones. One victim, the person who spurned the murderer, was stabbed a number of times, while the second, in both cases in the wrong place at the wrong time, was killed by a single blow. There was arson versus attempted arson also.
The childhoods of both Agnes and my stepson were both troubled, filled with dysfunction and loss. One line in the book equally applied to my stepson, “But talking to [the Reverend] only reminds me of how everything in my life has worked against me, and how unloved I have been.” I won’t go into how poetic the thoughts of Agnes were compared those of a regular person, as neither thought nor dialogue can be accurately portrayed in a book without making it extremely tedious to read.
One thing that made me wonder was that Agnes was able to continue to live and work on that farm without anyone coming to get her; if my stepson had not been locked away he would have lasted about five minutes. Then I realized that it was her death sentence that was keeping her safe from more harm than she experienced, ironically enough. My stepson got life instead of death.
Then I put the book down for a couple of weeks – we were facing media coverage yet again, and so instead of finishing it I was re-reading old Judy Blume books from my childhood. When I picked it up again I was up to her arrival at Illugastadir. And from then on the book ran out of similarities.
Some years ago I wrote a piece about the Connair Disaster, which happened in Alice Springs on January 5, 1977; during the course of the research I interviewed all sorts of people, survivors, and those related to the victims, as well as whoever might provide information about the perpetrator. At some stage I was accused of being sympathetic towards that person, when all I’d done was cobble together the few things I could find out. Later on people who knew this person personally contacted me, and some of them did not want their names or even their recollections printed for the same reason. Truman Capote was also similarly accused over In Cold Blood. Who were these accusers? People who had known the victims and their families personally.
And I see that Kent, whose sympathies do lie with this executed woman, has history on her side. Anyone who knew those victims personally has been dead for a hundred years or more.
A device used by writers of cosy mysteries is to make the murder victim as unpleasant as possible, so they are no real loss to the fictitious community, which keeps the tone of the book light. The murderers are just as unpleasant. And Kent has made her victims as unpleasant as any of these. Even the unfortunate second victim was known as Sheepkiller-Pétur. Now I know she’s done a lot of research, but she has woven fiction into her facts, and unless we also spend years trawling through Icelandic archives or somehow dig up those other titles about Natan Ketilsson, we will never know if he was as bad as he is portrayed in this book.
As for my stepson, his victims will never be more than innocent women.
So, what does drive a woman to murder? If this were a straight fiction, I would have been most satisfied by the answer, but instead that question of fiction or fact hovers. The ending also resolves my question of whether I think Kent successfully gets inside Agnes’s head.
But are the events of that awful night as Agnes tells at the end of the book, or invented by the author, hoping that it was what really happened?
I guess we’ll never know.