At what stage did Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites muscle out Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries from the Baileys Prize’s shortlist? The Booker-winning New Zealander was present and correct in the Baileys longlist, but those final six books, it seems, had room for only one murder mystery set in a remote nineteenth-century wilderness. That this slot went to Kent’s competent novel rather than Catton’s baggily inventive effort might say something about the new Orange.
I’ve already written about two of the Baileys contenders: Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland, also featured on the last Booker shortlist, was a sometimes moving, sometimes lumpy, always classy family saga potboiler; Eimear McBridge’s A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing, meanwhile, is astonishingly bold, a work both estranging and engaging which captures a voice and holds it in a unique, rarely writerly way. Kent’s entry feels to me to slip behind both these efforts, and yet it has already won several prizes and been shortlisted for many more. Indeed, there’s little doubt that Burial Rites packs a punch: it has an unerring sense of place and of atmosphere, and its Icelandic setting is convincingly, memorably rendered. It also has at its centre a potent figure: Agnes Magnúsdóttir, a woman convicted of the 1828 murder of a man named Nathan Ketilsson. She spends the entirety of the novel awaiting her execution, and it is in her voice that the novel comes so effectively alive.
Indeed, this is also the source of the novel’s greatest weakness: it is imbalanced. Agnes only narrates roughly a half of the novel; the rest of the story is told by an omniscient third-person narrator who skips between the supporting cast. Some of these characters – such as Margrét, the farmer’s wife who finds herself playing host to the condemned murderess – are relatively full-blooded, capable of challenging Agnes’s charisma; and others, such as Thorvadur Jónsson, the priest assigned to Agnes as her confessor, tread a relatively bloodless and predictable path, in his case from passive observer to slightly-less-passive participant. There is a sense that Kent’s inexperience – this is her first novel – has led to a hedging of the bets, and Burial Rites suffers every time she steps back from Agnes’s fiery, but not entirely inviting, voice. It’s hard not to compare this caution with McBride’s courage, and find for the latter: a single, uninterrupted, compelling voice, consistently and unsparingly rendered, might have made Burial Rites more of an invigorating prospect.
On the other hand, the deep winter of Iceland freezes the action – several times there are concerned conversations about the practical implications of the weather for the date of Agnes’s execution – and there is a cold calmness to an awful lot of Burial Rites which might not have been best-served by focusing on Agnes. Here, for instance, is the convicted murderer on her personal eschatology:
You will be lost. There is no final home, there is no burial, there is only a constant suffering, a thwarted journey that takes you everywhere with offering you a way home, for there is no home, there is only this cold island and your dark self spread thinly upon it until you take up the wind’s howl and mimic its loneliness you are not going home you are gone silence will claim you, suck your life down into its black waters and churn out stars that might remember you, but if they do they will not say, they will not say, and if no one will say your name you are forgotten I am forgotten. [pg. 321]
Here, meanwhile, is the confessor, rendered by that omniscient narrator, huddling in the Icelandic terrain, his thoughts reported to us:
Hunched against the smattering of rain and wind, Tóti inwardly chastised himself. What sort of man are you if you want to run at the sigh of damaged flesh? What sort of priest will you be if you cannot withstand the appearance of suffering? It had been a particularly vivid bruise upon her chin that had disturbed him the most. A ripe, yellow colour, like a dried egg yolk. Tóti wondered at the force that might have birthed it. [pg. 49]
You’ll hopefully perceive the differences here: the relative thinness, the sudden reliance on cliché, the more measured, familiar prosody of the third-person sections. Much of these parts of the novel pass by in extended dialogues, direct speech which whilst fairly well differentiated is also – again, dictated by that rigorous attachment to environment – mean and bitten-out. Here’s Margrét in conversation with a friend about the more wayward of her two daughters: “Is Steina making up stories again?” “Only the good Lord knows. I don’t remember. Actually, I’m a bit worried about her. She smiles at Agnes.” [pg. 117] This sort of thing does the job, but it doesn’t set pulses racing.
What it does do, however, is emphasise the centrality of Agnes: how people react to her, how she sparks questions in their minds, how the force of her charisma knocks widely accepted verities out of joint. Margrét begins the novel entirely hostile to her guest – “What sort of woman kills men?” she asks, on behalf of her entire community [p. 51]. By the end of the novel, inevitably, she is telling Agnes that, “You are not a monster” [pg. 323]. Agnes is aware what people will think when they hear her story: “They will see the whore, the madwoman, the murderess, the female dripping blood into the grass and laughing with her mouth choked with dirt” [pg. 29]. Over the length of the work, however, Kent naturally paints a more complicated picture – a woman abandoned by her family, sent working as an itinerant house-servant, falling in with Ketilsson, a man who abuses her and all the women around him, and who becomes the focus of a plot by others to exact revenge upon him. Kent has protested against suggestions that she is anachronistically crafting a proto-feminist icon out of Agnes; I think she does so fairly, since Agnes has none of the agency associated with those kinds of effort – she is trapped by the system, literally her fate is sealed by it from the moment we first meet her. Nevertheless, Burial Rites is a story of understanding, an exercise in excavation: “I am a woman,” Agnes tells us, “not a book”, and Kent is engaged in imagining a life for a woman who is often simply a name on a commemorative plaque.
Thus again we come to the difficult issue of why, then, Agnes does not narrate the whole novel: in part, perhaps, so that her effect on others can be demonstrated (“how other people think of you determines who you are” [pg. 108]). In this case, however, why third-person omniscient and not several other first-persons? It is not as if the environment of Iceland could not be painted in the same way: “Autumn fell upon the valley like a gasp” [pg. 198] might be the kind of literary bon mot that pokes out of Kent’s prose a little too sharply, but it could be fashioned into Tóti’s voice just as well. I am criticising a novelist here for not writing the book I wanted to read, and in that I walk over – ho ho – thin ice. But I’m trying to indicate the way in which Burial Rites is simultaneously exciting and familiar, vivid and pedestrian. It captures the imagination, but doesn’t do a great deal with its hostage. It might be optioned as a film to star Jennifer Lawrence, but never once extends the effect of Agnes on those who surround her to its readers – by altering our conceptions of what a novel might look like. In eschewing Catton for Kent, then, the Baileys Prize has, like Burial Rites itself, played things safe.