Shortlisted for the 2013 Guardian First Book Award, this title was very popular amongst the various reading groups which participated in adjudicating the award. The novel tells the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, who was the last woman to be executed in Iceland, in 1829. Inspired by historical fact, and supported with snippets from real documents throughout the novel, Burial Rites is a highly accomplished début.
The most striking aspect of this novel is Kent’s poetic use of language and her competence at evoking a very powerful landscape. Her love of Iceland is very apparent, and she tells Agnes’s story, and indeed the story of the entire community, both skilfully and thoughtfully. Agnes’s tale is a sad one of love and death, and from the outset the reader is under no illusion as to the outcome of the novel – as we know that historically, she was condemned and executed. However this does not negate a fascinating story arc and personal journey of Agnes, along with that of the young priest she requests to prepare her for death, and the family who are obliged to house her until her execution date.
The story was constructed from Kent’s research into the historical events surrounding Magnúsdóttir’s execution, and while in places she tries to exonerate Agnes from the crime, she does not make the mistake of being overly sympathetic. The reader is not forcefully encouraged to like Agnes from the beginning, instead we are asked to embrace the community to such an extent that although we know Agnes must die – the pressing question is whether she can be understood and forgiven.
Kent has been touted as a new writer to keep an eye on – it will be interesting to see whether she will provide the literary world with an equally successful second novel, or if so much depended on her previous fascination with this single case in Iceland, that subsequent works will not manage to be so lovingly crafted. Burial Rites has recently been shortlisted for the 2014 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction (previously known as the Orange Prize), where it will undoubtedly stand a good chance, although pitted against Donna Tartt’s new novel The Goldfinch.
Not only is this the ideal book for a newcomer to Norse mythology, it is also essential reading for those with a well-established interest. Kevin Crossley-Holland tells the stories in his own style while focussing on making the tales immensely readable, amusing and intriguing. This is essentially what the Norse myths are. In no other pantheon of mythology will you encounter such lively and believable characters – these gods cannot be confined to elegant works of art and marble statues. Much as I and millions of other individuals share an interest in the classical mythology of the Greeks and Romans, the very real human nature of the Norse gods has its own peculiar fascination, one which Crossley-Holland embraces whole-heartedly.
Part of the enduring pull of the Norse myths is that the sequence of stories leads inevitably to the end of the world and the death of the gods themselves, unlike the myths of the classical world. This theme has been explored by many writers (as you can see from my previous review of Ragnarok by A. S. Byatt). Another example is Joanne Harris. Taking an opposite stance to Byatt, Harris is inspired by Ragnarok to try to preserve the gods in her series of books marketed for a younger audience, with great success. Authors’ varying reactions to the momentous literary event of Ragnarok demonstrates the power which the Norse myths have over us, and dare I say particularly over writers. As Harris herself has said, when she first reached the end of the myths she thought to herself that surely there must be more. A similar reaction is experienced at reaching the end of this volume by Kevin Crossley-Holland. Each story is so expertly told that one is left bereft at the end, and must seek more reading matter on the subject. While there is a lucid introduction to this volume, which explains the major features of the mythology and the literary heritage, it is a scratch upon the surface of academic discussion. However, the bibliography is an extremely useful tool should the reader feel curious to learn more.
To conclude – if you have never read a collection of these myths, look no further to find your starting point. If you already have an interest, I recommend this book as a well-written version of the myths, told by a master storyteller.