Hannah Kent was a legacy at our university. She took the same creative writing degree as I undertook a few years after her, and our lecturers were always talking about her, and how she moved to Melbourne and started her very own lit journal, Kill Your Darlings. Now, the uni has even more reason to be proud of their PhD candidate, as Kent’s debut novel Burial Rites won the Australian Unpublished Manuscript Award in 2011 and subsequently a bidding war began over the publication rights to her manuscript. The hype leading up to the release of the book, particularly in South Australia, was enormous. And it hardly seems fair that a debut should have such high expectations before the public has even read a page.
I couldn’t wait to read this story about the last woman, Agnus Magnusdottoir, to be executed in Iceland. Burial Rites is Kent’s fictional account of the circumstances surrounding her protagonist’s execution, and the last months of the woman’s life before the execution. I enjoyed reading the book, but for me it wasn’t more than simply interesting. That is not to criticise the writing itself; which is sharp, considered and paints a beautiful picture of the Icelandic countryside. But for me, knowing from the outset the fate of Agnus Magnusdottoir robbed the novel of the intrigue and suspense which otherwise would have made the book one which I couldn’t put down.
Before I read the book, I read an article Kent wrote for Kill Your Darlings, about the process of researching, writing and getting Burial Rites published. It is one of the most honest, passionate and frank articles I have ever read about writing and getting published, and captures the stress, self-doubt and persistence which is required to not only actually complete a novel, but to find a publisher and re-edit a manuscript for publication.
While Burial Rites is not one of my favourite books, it is a book which definitely deserves the hype surrounding it, and is well worth reading. After all, to not know that Agnus Magnusdottoir was a real person or her fate before reading is an injustice to her legacy. Kent skilfully explores another side of the story, suggesting that nothing is ever as black and white as it seems.
Published Picador, 2013
Due to my travels until the end of September, the next book club book won’t be posted until October, and my posts will be more infrequent than usual while I’m away. I am, however, reading, and will have lots to post about when I return if I don’t manage in the meantime!