In 2014, my first year of rating books on Goodreads, the highest rating I ever awarded a book was four stars. I enjoy Goodreads’ rating system a lot: ★ – did not like it, ★★ – it was ok, ★★★ – liked it, ★★★★ – really liked it, and ★★★★★ – it was amazing. I read some wonderful books last year, but nothing that truly earned five stars for me. The thought crossed my mind – was I, perhaps, being a bit picky? Well, it took but the first book of 2015 to assuage those doubts. Five stars must be saved for those rare pieces that strike you deeply; the word ‘amazing’ given in sincerity rather than unimaginative overuse. I’d almost forgotten what that five star feeling was. It was then that I picked up Burial Rites by Hannah Kent.
Burial Rites is a fictional telling of the true story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last woman to be executed in Iceland. Sentenced to death for the murder of two men in 1828, she is sent to work on a local family’s farm to wait out the long months before a yet unnamed day of reckoning. As the seasons turn, Agnes’ appointed religious guide, as well as her reluctant guardian family come to know a woman more complex than the savage murderess they’ve been led to believe she is. Peppered with actual government documents from the sentencing, Kent alternatively writes a raw, gripping and utterly moving tale for an otherwise voiceless figure of Icelandic history.
What really drives this novel is Kent’s depiction of the landscape and livelihood of Iceland itself. The author describes Burial Rites as her “‘dark love letter’ to Iceland”, and it is a powerful romance indeed. With even a few pages hungrily devoured on the morning tram, the Nordic country leapt cold and crisp off the page and I felt plunged into Agnes’ world in an instant. Iceland is the beautiful and brutally chilling character motivating every other being in this story. Despite the heavy, haunting nature of Burial Rites, I find myself incredibly compelled to make Iceland my next grand adventure.
Kent’s own story as a writer is one that both inspires and flusters me (in the best possible way). A young Australian (yes!) writer, she penned Burial Writes as the creative component of her PhD in 2011. It was sparked by her visit to Iceland during high school as a Rotary exchange student, where she first learned of Agnes Magnúsdóttir’s execution. She would later return on a funded research trip in 2010. Kent submitted her draft of Burial Rites to Writing Australia’s Unpublished Manuscript Award in 2011 and won, leading to the publication of her debut novel. It’s gone on to become a bestseller and continued award-winner around the world.
The baked companion of Burial Rites came to me almost like a gift. Just days before I finished this book (I eked out the last few pages almost painfully, not wanting it to end), I stumbled across this ‘Icelandic Happy Marriage Cake‘ at The Sugar Hit, a fabulous blog I follow. Now, Agnes’ story hardly involves any happy marriages – in fact, far from it – but the Iceland connection seemed too good to ignore. In any case, the original meaning of the ‘Happy Marriage’ in Iceland’s classic hjónabandssæla (oh, what a delightful language to wrap one’s tongue around!) appears to have been lost. It seems we have to create our own story for this too.
I’m going to send you over to The Sugar Hit for this recipe, because Sarah’s blog and photography is just too delightful not too share. I urge you to make this ‘cake’ – it’s easy and thoroughly delicious, and truth be told was exactly the baking win I needed (I’ve had a couple of kitchen dramas lately!). I didn’t make the jam filling from scratch, as Sarah does, both because I wanted a quick creation to whip up on a work night, and because I found a a scrumptious-sounding Rhubarb and Red Berry jam from Anathoth Farm at my supermarket. I can wholeheartedly confirm it does the trick!
Sarah also links to a couple of other bloggers’ posts on Icelandic travel, which I highly recommend you take a peek at too. Combine that with Burial Rites and a slice of hjónabandssæla? I’ll see you on the next flight bound for Reykjavík.