By Matthew Robb
CHALK IT UP to providence, fate or simply good
fortune, but Hannah Kent’s red-hot literary career
began with a childhood dream gone awry. The
watershed year 2002 found the Australian schoolgirl, then 17, jetting to Iceland for one glorious year
on a Rotary exchange program.
Dream turned to nightmare when she
learned that instead of being stationed
in Reykjavik—the island’s endlessly
charming capital city—she would be
living in Saudarkrokur, a remote fishing village on the dark, treeless, wind-blasted northern coast. In winter.
After epic bouts of homesickness,
Kent opened her eyes to this alien
landscape so celebrated in Icelandic
sagas. It began to enchant her, then
fire her imagination. When she
chanced upon the lonely 1830
gravesite of Iceland’s last executed
murderer—a mysterious woman
named Agnes Magnusdottir—the seeds of her brilliant new historical novel, Burial Rites, were sown.
Speaking by telephone from a rented cottage in
Adelaide, her hometown on Australia’s southern
coast, Kent, now 28, describes her book as a “dark
love letter to Iceland.” Critics appear equally smit-
ten, hailing it as a tour de force. Pulitzer Prize–win-
ning novelist and fellow Australian Geraldine
Brooks praises the freshman work as “an accom-
plished gem, its prose as crisp and sparkling as its
For four years after her time abroad, Kent’s
head swirled with the fate of Agnes. In 2009, she
decided to write about the case to fulfill Ph.D.
requirements at Flinders University in Adelaide.
Almost immediately, she ran into a wall, as bio-
graphical information on Agnes was practically nil.
The official records that
she did manage to
chase down online left two distinct impressions:
one, that Agnes was a “Nordic Lady Macbeth,” and
two, that she was filled with what Kent describes as
“fury over her misrepresentation.”
Kent knew she couldn’t write a whodunit, as
Agnes’ fate—public beheading by
broadax—was common knowledge.
Instead, she opted to write a crisp
“whydunit” that reimagined Agnes’
final six months. After learning
Icelandic and the art of decoding
“scratchy Icelandic handwriting and
historic vocabularies,” Kent spent two
years researching 1820s Iceland to
granular detail, via the Internet.
Facts took her only so far. To get
inside Agnes’ head, Kent had to resort
to educated, intuition-guided guesses,
or what she calls “informed specula-
tion.” A follow-up, six-week research
blitz inside the National Archives of
Iceland confirmed that her gut feelings had been spot
on again and again: that Agnes had grown up with-
out a mother, that she was childless, that her counsel-
ing priest was young and callow, and more. Today,
Kent credits intuitive dot-connecting at the subcon-
scious level, but allows something far more mystical
may have guided her.
“The writing phase was overwhelming, very
intense,” she recalls. “I sat down in January 2011 and
wrote a thousand words of new writing every single
day.” Four months later, she submitted her draft for
the inaugural Writing Australia Unpublished
Manuscript Award. She won—earning a small cash
prize ($10,000 Australian) and a priceless mentor-ship with Brooks.
In mid-2012, Burial Rites ignited a furious bidding war among publishers, with Kent snagging a
two-book, seven-figure deal. To keep her life centered, she continues her work as deputy editor of the
Australian literary journal Kill Your Darlings, which
nurtures promising new writers. And the celebrity
whirlwind is accelerating. This September, just as
Kent’s promotional globe-hopping began in earnest,
she sold film rights to the novel. Meanwhile, the historical novelist is busy on her next book, focusing
her penetrating eye on 19th-century Ireland.
Looking back at how one closed door led
her to another, far more promising door,
Kent says, “Years ago, I figured if the
academic gig didn’t work out for
me, I would consider work as a
pastry chef. Since Burial Rites
was acquired in 2012, it’s been
an absolute dream. I’m in a constant state of gratitude.” C
Connection contributor Matthew
Robb writes from Washington, D.C. F R A
her penetrating eye on 19th-century Ireland.
Pennie Clark Ianniciello,
Costco book buyer
Fire and ice
Australian author revisits a murder and
the last execution in 19th-century Iceland
COSTCO HAS 50 copies of Hannah
Kent’s Burial Rites, with signed book
plates, to give away. To enter, just go to
Costco.com, search for “NovBookPick”
and follow the instructions. Or print your name,
address and daytime phone number on a postcard
or letter and send it to: Hannah Kent, The Costco
Connection, P.O. Box 34088, Seattle, WA 98124-1088.
NO PURCHASE, PAYMENT OR OPT-IN OF ANY KIND IS
NECESSARY TO ENTER OR WIN THIS SWEEPSTAKES.
Purchase will not improve odds of winning. S weepstakes is sponsored by Hachette
Book Group, 237 Park Avenue, New York, NY 10017. Open to legal residents of the
U.S. (except Puerto Rico) who are age 18 or older at the time of entry. One entry per
household. Entries must be received by December 1, 2013. Winners will be randomly
selected and noti;ed by mail on or before January 1, 2014. The value of the prize is
$26. Void where prohibited. Winners are responsible for all applicable federal, state
and local taxes. Odds of winning depend on the number of eligible entries received.
Employees of Costco or Hachette Book Group and their families are not eligible.
Tablet or smartphone?
Scan or click here to enter the
giveaway in our digital newsstand
and online editions. (See page 5.)
FOR MORE years than I
care to count, the things
for which I am most
thankful have been my
family, my friends, my
dogs, good wine and good
books. While I would be
hard-pressed to rank them,
I can say that my gratitude
for books is currently
through the roof. Much of it
is due to this month’s Book
Buyer’s Pick, Burial Rites,
by ;rst-time novelist
Inspired by a true
story, Kent examines the
life of a woman accused of
murdering her master.
However, there are no
women’s prisons in 1829
Iceland, and Agnes is sent
to an isolated farm to await
her execution. As her death
looms ever closer, the
farmer’s wife and
daughters learn that every
story has two sides.
I imagine you, too, will
be thankful for this beautiful novel that unfolds in a
For more book picks,
see page 48.
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