Thursday, 28 August 2014

Burial Rites: In Conversation with Hannah Kent

By Kamini Navin 

Burial Rites is a book I found hard to put down. It allowed me to escape into a passionate world of solitude, imagination and regret. I became obsessed, making the book my companion while travelling to work, at play and even in bed. I found it very hard to return to the real world after I had finished. So you can only imagine my joy when I was slated to review Hannah Kent’s session at MWF14.

In her talk, Hannah gave a delightful, bubbly and at times raw description of her 'book journey' from her first encounter with Iceland as a Rotary Exchange student, her fascination with Nordic history, in particular the execution of Agnes Magnusdottir, and how she became transfixed by the vivid, yet barren, landscape and somewhat bipolar weather of Iceland.

Burial Rites was a difficult book for her to write and research as there were many historical papers, church pastoral notes, ancestral family letters and national archives to be read. Each document was pored over with the requisite care, respect and attention, so much so that as Hannah shared the details of her in-depth laborious and detailed research we could sense that Agnes Magnusdottir’s must have been there with her all the way as she traversed hallways of the Icelandic National Archive office.

I am encouraged by Hannah intense and thorough approach to research. In order for her to do justice to Magnusdottir's story, she embraced all of Iceland and more, exposing her self to everything the country had to offer from travel journals to recipes, playlists of Iceland songs, lyrics and more. She explored French feminism research on 18th century executed women and travelled across Iceland visiting the towns her heroine passed through on her journey. It's a very immersive process and it's one that I try to use in my own writing work.

Hannah speaks of Magnusdottir with affection, explaining that although most Icelanders were certain that Magnusdottir deserved her ill-fated execution, she felt otherwise, believing that she deserved a fairer portrayal. This explains why she is depicted in the book as an everyday woman of her times, prone to working and getting dirty on the farm, falling in love and dreaming of raising a family.

If you still haven’t leafed through Burial Rites I implore you to. There’s something quite spiritual about the characters that evokes a stir of emotions Hannah makes it easy to identify with their fears, passions and hopes. The reader is transfixed and transported to, what I can only describe from reading the book, as the dreamy and panoramic landscape of Iceland.

Fans of Burial Rites will be keen to hear that the book will soon be heading to Hollywood and rumours are Jennifer Lawrence may play the lead role of Agnes Magnusdottir.

Screenplay or not, I await with an expectant heart for Hannah Kent’s second book to hit the book shops. She's switching her writing focus from Iceland to Ireland. A new obsession awaits me.


  1. I loved this book too, and her story of researching and writing it is inspirational. Looking forward to her next one.

  2. Like you, Kamini, I was totally immersed in this book, and not surprising to read that Hannah Kent was so into her research - you really feel the sense of place and history which makes it so compelling. Thanks for your insights.

  3. Kamini, just finished studying the book at uni. What a compelling argument against state sanctioned execution.


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