“The ice will haunt you, in ways so deep, locking up inside you the dreams that you keep.”
Barefoot. k.d.lang from the 1991 movie, Salmonberries
At 17, I watched Salmonberries, a film set in Alaska and wondered how anyone survives the cold. I wondered at the brutality of an environment I could not reconcile to my own experience of sub tropical Queensland.
At 17, Hannah Kent, a fellow Australian, went on student exchange to Iceland.
There is no real similarity in the two situations.
Except there is.
A few years ago, I went to the Middle East. Brave, foolish, call it what you will, I experienced Jordan, Syria and Egypt and I would not trade those five weeks for anything. The culture shock is incredible in these countries. The mid to high 40 degree temperatures, the evening picnics along the highway during Ramadan, the camels, the children and adults that stare at white westerners with, in my experience, curiosity rather than animosity. I threw myself into an experience vastly oppositional to my comfort zone.
Kent, in the postscript of Burial Rites, writes about feeling exposed and isolated in a community and I can identify with this. When you don’t speak the language, know few of the customs and want desperately to blend in and be accepted, being different is an enormous challenge. Fast forward to the time when Kent was writing this novel, we should remember that she did not speak the language so the story she heard of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the research involved and the interviews and conversations take on a construction level, beyond the challenges we face when thinking and writing in our primary language.
Agnes Magnúsdóttir, protagonist of the factual, historical novel is instantly endearing. Everyone has made assumptions about her because of her mother, her childhood, her status as pauper, her status as maid, her relationship with her alleged victim. No one, even the family and the junior priest sent to counsel her, truly know her. She remains the murderess almost right to the end.
As the reader, Kent exposes us to the internal monologue of Agnes. We learn about her life and her treatment. We learn about her dreams, the ambitions she had to gain a slightly higher, though still modest, status and her fears. Agnes speaks to us in the first person. She could be sitting next to you on the tube, or across from you in a cafe. Her words are striking and sometimes so powerful, you read the sentence again to be sure you’ve understood her correctly. I found myself, in moments, wishing she would tell more of the story, however, the steady progression of the farms year, the reaping, the culling, the making of sausage and salting of meat add to the sense of urgency that Agnes will be executed before you have learnt all there is to know. The descriptions of the cold can be felt in your own bones and this is even more poignant remembering days spent in Stockholm at -18C degrees.
Watching the pages remaining decrease in number adds to the feeling of agitation that Agnes is slipping away. I am convinced, having begun using a Kindle for some books recently, the same emotions would have arisen. Knowing the percentage you’ve read is not the same tactile experience of paper.
I want to praise Hannah Kent for this book. She took me to a country I have yet to travel to and immersed me in the cold brutality of winter, the beauty of a spring and the comfort of having a home to come back to even if it isn’t your own and is a fleeting moment of security. For a first novel there is a level of skill within the pages you may not expect.
Every moment of this book was worth the emotions and the experience. I do feel sad though that I will never read this book for the first time again. This might seem a strange thing to say, but every so often a book is so special you want to relive it, share it and if necessary, force people to experience it.
Agnes Magnúsdóttir and Friðrik Sigurðsson were the last people to be executed in Iceland – 12 January 1830. RIP.
Hannah Kent was the focus of Australian Story on 1 July 2013. The transcript can be found here