Burial Rites: A Different Shade of Icelandic Murder Mystery


The publication of Burial Rites by Hannah Kent has been awaited, with great anticipation, well beyond the author’s homeland. Translation Rights have now sold into an impressive 18 territories and the book is going on sale in May in Australia, the UK in August and the US in September. In addition this title has been already selected by Waterstones as one of their eleven favourite debut novels of 2013. I really enjoyed this book and I am thrilled to see that everything is lining up beautifully for this young Australian author and her international bestseller in making. I was lucky to catch up with Hannah for a chat about her new novel, her love of Iceland and her fascination with Agnes Magnusdottir, the last woman to be publicly beheaded in Iceland in 1829.

What is your earliest memory of reading?

I have a very clear memory of sitting on the floor of my Reception classroom (I was five), reading a ‘big book’ with the rest of the class. The teacher was pointing to each word with a wooden ruler, and the class was chanting it aloud together.  As she turned each page I was reading the new sentence in my head, then chanting with the rest of the class. I remember feeling intensely frustrated at having to wait until the class finished before the next page was turned. I was quite a precocious reader.  

If you could be one fictional character, who would you choose to be and why?

I used to want to be Moonface from The Faraway Tree series by Enid Blyton. The idea of living in a house made out of a tree, complete with round furniture and a slippery dip in the middle filled me with indescribable excitement. I’d still quite like to be Moonface. He has kind and very eccentric friends. Otherwise I’d choose to be  Hermione from Harry Potter.  I think we share some characteristics

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Burial Rites is a novel that takes place in a very remote part of Iceland and the story is based on a real murder that happened almost 200 years ago. How on earth did you come across this story?

I suppose it does seem a rather unlikely subject for an Australian writer. I actually lived in Iceland when I was seventeen. After high school I spent a year in a small town in north Iceland on a Rotary Exchange. During the first dark, wintry months of my time there I happened to drive through a very striking place called Vatnsdalur. My travelling companions told me about a historical event that had occurred there in 1830 (not to give too much away), and I became very curious about the woman they mentioned: a servant called Agnes who had been condemned to death for the murder of two men. During the course of my exchange, and in the years that followed, my curiosity about this woman deepened. In most accounts of the murders she was portrayed as a manipulative, evil woman – or she was hardly mentioned at all. My decision to write about Agnes was triggered by a longing to find the real woman behind the stereotype. I wanted to discover something of her life story, explore her ambiguity and complexity, and counter the popular opinion of her as a monster.

Your novel is very atmospheric, your descriptions of landscape and weather are very haunting, and they create a perfect backdrop for this amazing story. For many readers, this is possibly their first contact with this remote part of the world. What did you feel when you saw Icelandic landscapes for the first time?

It was very important to me that I evoke Iceland’s unique landscape when writing this book. Not only is Iceland a country that is ruled by nature’s unpredictable hand – you cannot tell an Icelandic story without mentioning the weather – but the landscape is also what first got under my skin when I lived there. When I first saw the mountains, the valleys, the horizon devoid of trees, it seemed strangely familiar; it felt like a homecoming. The natural world looms large in Burial Rites partly because it was so central to my characters’ way of living, but also because I wanted to express my own reverence for its beauty and its dangers. My father – who has since visited the country – and I joke that we must have some ancestral link to Iceland, so deep and inexplicable is our spiritual connection to the landscape.

It looks like you have done a fair amount of research when writing this book, what was the most surprising discovery that you made in the process of writing Burial Rites?

I have done a lot of research – about two years of intensive work. I spent most of that time reading everything I could get my hands on about every aspect of nineteenth-century Iceland: what they ate, the clothes they wore, the type of butter churn used, popular hymns sung at funerals, seasonal and daily chores, the most prevalent diseases – I needed to know it all. I spent a lot of time reading everything from very dry academic articles on sheep grazing, to poetry. I also spent six weeks studying censuses, ministerial records and ‘soul registers’ in Iceland’s national archives, where I learned most of the facts of Agnes’s life. Prior to my time in the archives, I’d made a variety of speculations about Agnes, based on what I knew about Iceland at that time. For instance, I guessed that she’d been born illegitimate, given the way she entered servitude. After finding her birth record in a parish book, I found that I was right. This happened quite a few times: often my educated guesses were proven to be right. It never failed to surprise me how close to the truth I’d come.

Is there a particular phrase, sentence, image or section of this book that you are especially proud of or have a special memory of creating?

There are many! I have very strong (‘fond’ doesn’t quite seem the right word) memories of writing the last few chapters. I was very emotional, very present in the story. Actually, I’m quite reluctant to talk about them in any detail. The time I spent writing the book’s conclusion feels very personal. My favourite parts of the book to write were the sections of Agnes’s voice, just for the creative opportunities they offered. I felt I could indulge in a certain lyricism when composing them.

Burial Rites is a novel about a murder and about Agnes Magnusdottir who was condemned to death for her part in the brutal murder. However it is also a story of human relationships, fate, and to some extent – social standing and the way it influences one’s life. How did you see this book in your mind? Was it Agnes first or was her story a perfect excuse to explore other themes?

It was always Agnes first, but I think I knew early on that any exploration of her story would necessarily require exploration of broader, particularly feminist, themes. As I mentioned previously  what motivated me to write the book in the first place was my frustration at the monster/angel dichotomy that criminal women are inevitably sorted into. I wanted to write about Agnes the human, not Agnes the stereotypical ‘evil woman’. The more I researched her life story, the more apparent it became that she was a woman who was trapped by her social standing. The other themes you mention, those of fate and human relationships, are interests of mine. I didn’t set out to explore them – it’s probably much more subconscious.

Often what gets edited out of a book is just as fascinating and revealing as what the final book turns out to be. Have you edited anything major from Burial Rites?

Ha, yes. The ending. There was originally another section that followed the final events of the book. It’s hard to describe it without going into ‘spoiler’ territory’, but it was basically superfluous. I did like the then-final sentence of the book though. I think I might try and sneak it into a future novel.

Burial Rites could have finished with two very different endings. Without giving away too much about this particular novel (we don’t want to spoil it for those who are yet to read it) do you believe that fiction is about “justice”?

It can be. But I feel that the best fiction is about empathy, which can be quite a different thing.

You had an amazing mentor to work with in the person of Geraldine Brooks. What is the most valuable piece of advice that she gave you?

Geraldine was both extremely considerate and honest. We didn’t go into the book in any great detail, but held an ongoing broad conversation about the character development, and the primary narrative. This was very useful for me, because I think when you spend a great deal of time working on a book, you lose sight of the forest for the trees. I was losing sight of the larger picture in my obsession with tweaking things at sentence level. One of the things Geraldine told me, in her perspicacity and wisdom, was to let a ‘little more light in’ at the end. Earlier drafts of the novel were very bleak, and while the published book is still dark in many, many ways, Geraldine showed me how I might leave the reader with a little hope at the end.

In Burial Rites you give some hints of the rich cultural background that Iceland has. Do you have any favorite Icelandic writers and books that you would love to share with our members?

Oh, there are so many! There are quite a few contemporary Icelandic authors who are gaining global recognition for their work – particularly those writing crime fiction. Arnaldur Indridason and Yrsa Sigurdardottir come to mind. My favourite Icelandic author, however, is undoubtedly Nobel Prize-winner, Halldor Laxness. Independent People remains one of my favourite novels ever, and is an absolute must-read for anyone interested in Iceland. Please check our site to view a great book trailer for Burial Rites. We would love to hear back from you about your experience of reading this great novel.