There’s only one country associated with them. A country where they divert roads to prevent annoying them. It has an oddball reputation in Europe, and it’s easy to see why.
Let’s be clear, Elves do not feature in Burial Rites, which is profoundly human, gritty, and un-supernatural. But Iceland, their host country, is very much at the centre of the novel,
to the extent that while it is supposedly about the fate of a female murderer, it’s really an incredibly unique exposition of nineteenth century Iceland.
It is, as Kent herself acknowledges, not a book that could be set anywhere else. The names, locations, details of farm life in the the 1820s are so unusual and specific that it’s social history as much as fiction that draws you in. Kent paints a picture of a country – a country, she says, of extremes, but it’s the harsh side that’s on show. The author has called it a ‘dark love letter’ to Iceland and in many ways the story seems like a means to talk about this country. And it’s this that I found most interesting and rewarding in the book – Icelandic culture, ways of life, landscape, farming. The reveal is as much about how these people live their lives as it is about exactly what happened. It’s a wind-swept, finger-numb, harsh existence, ruled by the seasons. Civilisation is a long way away – this is a world of wood fire, animal skins, smell. Despite the expanses of empty landscape, it’s a small society, with everyone knowing everyone in a way that is claustrophobic and suspicious rather than communally supportive.
The fundamental narrative of the book driving it forward is uncovering what happened around the murders that are introduced at the start of the book, and there is a momentum in the book which comes from the “is she guilty” question. There is a definite link to Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace (a more successful exploration of these themes) but Burial Rites succeeds in its sensitive depiction of Agnes’s life and the effect that this country, this society, has had on her.
Thanks to Burial Rites, I’m no closer to booking a ticket to Reykjavik but I’m much closer to having a sense of what makes this remote and strange island remarkable.