It’s all about the punctuation: Burial Rites


Burial Rites by Hannah Kent was one of last year’s darlings in the book blogosphere. Based on real events that occurred in early nineteenth-century Iceland, the story thrusts us into the head of a condemned murderess while she lives out her final days. Agnes, a destitute servant, has been found guilty along with two others in the murder of an eccentric local man — a healer, womanizer, and partial outcast — who is both respected and hated in his rural community. The book opens as Agnes is taken from the wretched conditions of her holding cell to a farm where she will help out the owners until her execution is arranged. The family who owns the farm is horrified to have been assigned the responsibility of accommodating her, and an inexperienced local priest is equally puzzled to have been requested by Agnes herself as her spiritual advisor. As Agnes enters the family farm, we begin to learn her story: how she lost her family and grew up a pauper, how she was educated, and how she came to love and hate the man who was murdered. We also learn how very intelligent she is.

The narration in the book switches viewpoints to shape our impression of Agnes; we learn about her from letters and various court documents; from the family mother Margret; from the priest Toti; and from Agnes herself. The “Agnes herself” narration is where the reader must watch the punctuation. When Agnes is narrating her story aloud, long sections are set in quotes. But when she is thinking to herself about what happened, the tone subtly shifts and the quotes disappear. The punctuation is important because Agnes does not tell her audience (the family, the priest) the same story she tells us, the readers, in her head. She omits telling the family that she and the murdered man were lovers, but instead shares a slightly altered, but plausible, version. Watching these shifts in punctuation and storytelling are really crucial as to how we–and the family and priest–grow to deeply empathize with her. But what I found the most interesting, was in the final section when Agnes tells about the murder. I read holding my breath to know if Agnes really did take part in the murder or was she, possibly, (hoping) falsely accused? This section is not set off in quotes and we are only in Agnes’s mind as she sits in the badstofa with the family and the priest on her final night on earth and tells them the end of her story. But because there are no quotes marks in this last section, I was left to wonder: did she tell them the truth? And because of that doubt, I was left wondering if she told the readers the truth.

The book was rich with period detail–grit, filth, the way people, dressed, ate, ailed, communed. The writing was rich, poetic, earthy, and raw. Ravens are used thematically (if unfairly as harbingers of darkness, evil) and you might guess how much I love a good black bird theme.

I loved Kent’s writing and use of language. A sample of favorite marked passages:

As the horses struggle through the tussocks, I wonder when they will kill me. I wonder where they will store me like butter, like smoked meat. Like a corpse, waiting for the ground to unfreeze before they can pocket me in the earth like a stone.

I am the dead bird on the shore. I am dry, not certain I will bleed when they drag me out to meet the axe. No, I am still warm, my blood still howls in my veins like the wind itself, and it shakes the empty nest  and asks where all the birds have gone, where have they gone?

I so often feel that I am barely here, that to feel weight is to be reminded of my own existence.

But any woman knows that a thread, once woven, is fixed in place; the only way to smooth a mistake is to let it all unravel.

Do you know the right name for a flock of ravens?” Toti shook his head. “A conspiracy, Reverend. A conspiracy” Margret raised an eyebrow challenging him to disagree. Toti watched the ravens settle on the eaves of the cattle barn. “Is that so, Mistress Margret? I thought they were called an unkindness.” 

A new blog name perhaps?

Little Brown and Company, ebook September 2013


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