Burial Rites: Discovering the Spiritual Connection with Nature

June 22, 2022 by Essay Writer

In 2003, aged 17, Kent leapt at the chance to travel to Iceland as part of a Rotary exchange programme when the opportunity arose, interested in the Scandinavian countries having never seen snow as a child (a considerably commonplace experience lacking for many Australians). Though she could not yet have known, this trip would provide the inspiration for her debut novel, first written as a PhD; and initiate her subsequent career as an acclaimed Australian author. Kent made that first trip to Iceland having decided to take a year off after finishing high school, swapping a scorching Australian summer for the harsh Icelandic winter and 24-hour darkness. Talk about a change of scenery – no wonder her travels were of such significance! Kent immediately fell in love with the foreign landscape, going so far as to describe the grip it had on her as “a homecoming” and holding a belief in her spiritual connection to the nation’s environment (explaining the overriding theme of connection to landscape and the correlation between scenery and emotion present in the novel). Yet despite her instant love of the country, Kent struggled for her first few months away, housed in a tight-knit fishing community with an older couple who mostly left her alone. Moreover, Kent was shy and unable to speak the language, feeling very conspicuous as she was gawked at by curious locals. This experience of alienation, not in the least helped by the breathtaking but unknown landscape and climate, left Kent feeling homesick and socially isolated.

It was during these bereft months in Iceland that Kent first heard Agnes’s story – and it had an irrevocably deep impact. Travelling home from Reykjavik, the nation’s capital, with her host family, Kent “spent most of the car trip gaping out the window at Iceland’s astonishing landscape of fjords, sweeping pastoral valleys, and dark-sided mountains – all of which were utterly unfamiliar to me…[falling into] a kind of reverie at the imposing beauty of the place.” As they passed through a certain valley, her host parents explained they were driving past the site of Iceland’s last execution and Kent, naturally curious, learnt from them only that a woman named Agnes had been beheaded in the 19th Century for the murder of two men. Kent immediately wanted to know what sort of woman Agnes had been – how had she reached such a sorrowful end amongst those hills? In an intensely reflective mindset at the time, Kent likened herself to Agnes and felt “an immediate fascination and kinship” with her – not because their situations are comparable per se, instead relating as a socially outcast female. Kent says of the moment; “there was something about the idea of this woman who was in a small community, isolated yet very conspicuous, that resonated with my own intense feelings at the time…Not that you can compare our situations, I know! One is a lonely exchange student and the other is a woman condemned to death… but there was something there, a personal connection, that made me want to learn more about her story.’

Thankfully, Kent eventually moved to another, more welcoming, host family, with four young children. Boarding somewhere that ‘resembled [her] life in Australia a little bit more’, she was able to finally learn the language and begin to fit in, starting to feel at home halfway through her year-long stay. However, even though her overseas experience had drastically improved, Kent found thoughts and questions regarding Agnes persisting (understandably – the allure of the tale and its dynamics is obvious and one can see why Kent was haunted by it).

Once back home in Adelaide and undertaking a creative writing degree at Flinders University, Kent’s curiosity regarding Agnes transformed into being part of her study, when required to write a section of a novel as a component of her honours thesis. Her profound experiences in Iceland had impacted Kent to the extent that she knew she wanted to write about them – particularly the murderess surrounded by so many questions. Upon researching Agnes’s life prior to execution, Kent was struck by the specific stereotypical depiction of her as a scheming, spurned witch centred in deceit – Kent summarises it as “the idea of women as either monsters or angels, with no middle ground.’ During her research, Kent read widely about 19th-century Iceland – from historical documents and case files to academic articles and statistics about the contextual way of living, to construct an in-depth image of the time and landscape in which Agnes lived and died. Kent even returned to Iceland to study various public records in person, including official accounts of the crime and its aftermath, and she skilfully utilises such documents throughout the novel to further the plot and provide factual background information.

However, the historical research only drove Kent’s novel to a certain extent – eventually she had to undertake the fictional components of her writing, deciding to pursue a different portrayal of Agnes to all those which she had seen – that of her as a human being, with thoughts and emotions, even exploring the possibility of being a victim herself. Since Kent continually shifts perspectives in the novel between Agnes (first-person account) and third-person narration from numerous characters, she needed a way to find a central voice for her protagonist whilst simultaneously depicting the other points of view surrounding her (most of which are harsh and unforgiving). On this issue, Kent says “…a lot of characterisation is just empathy, and that’s how she came about…It was the result of having thought about her more or less constantly for 10 years – obsessed is the word my family use – and asking myself what it would be like to be in her position.’Furthermore, there is an obvious and abrupt end to Agnes’s story, hence Kent sought to build suspense and create a gradually intense and enthralling version of how the events played out, focussing more on Agnes’s life rather than her implication in the murders and resultant execution; and enabling us, as readers, to forgot about her impending death much like Kent did whilst writing it. Such continual and thorough research, alongside a deep-rooted desire within Kent to uphold her own self-expectations, lead to her draft novel achieving the inaugural. Writing Australia Unpublished Manuscript Award in 2011, which included receiving mentorship from Pulitzer-prize winning Australian author Geraldine Brooks. Under Brooks, Kent was encouraged to “let a little light in”, reworking the ending to make it less unbearably grim (which goes to show Kent’s affinity with bleak stories when reading as a child infiltrated her own writing – it’s hard to imagine that the original conclusion of Burial Rites could have been any more macabre!). Brooks also advised Kent to work and focus on “the relationships between Agnes and those who surround her at the book’s conclusion to give a suggestion of something transcending the tragedy.”

Following the completed draft’s success, there was strong competition for the book amongst publishers both in Australia and internationally. In a result previously unheard of for a first-time Australian writer, Kent eventually secured an international book deal worth over $1 million, recognising her immense privilege in a very humble manner, stating ‘I have no idea why it happened, but I’m grateful that it did.” Despite her uncanny success, Kent still hopes readers will remember that Burial Rites is her debut novel, from which she is still learning, describing it as “very much my apprenticeship as a writer.’ (Thus, we as readers need to go into the novel bearing this in mind – Kent admits it is not a perfect novel – but having said that in my opinion it’s a damn good effort for her first attempt!).

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