A 17-year-old Hannah Kent was walking down a street in the North Iceland town of Sauðárkrókur in the late dawn of an Icelandic winter’s day. A large SUV started to tail her. She walked faster; the vehicle sped up. She began to worry; in her native Australia, like most places, this was a cause for concern. The vehicle caught up with her again. This time, she slowed her pace. The vehicle pulled alongside her, and one of the rear windows lowered. Three children peered from inside, directly at Hannah. She caught the word Ástralía, amongst smiles and waves, and realized that the children were just curious about this girl visiting from the other side of the world.
Hannah Kent must be the least likeliest person to write a highly acclaimed novel set in Iceland, about an 1820s execution. She is from the searing heat of Adelaide and first visited Iceland on an exchange visit, choosing Iceland so she could see snow for the first time (her other choices were Sweden and Switzerland, so it was a dead cert!). If it hadn’t been for a chance journey with her host family in northern Iceland, she would never have learned the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir. The story that ended up forming her PhD.
Yet, somehow, all of these coincidences happened. The result, of course, is Burial Rites. Burial Rites was released in Australia in 2013, and is Hannah’s debut novel. It’s taken the world by storm since then, being nominated for the Guardian First Book Award and the Baileys women’s prize for fiction.
I met Hannah during her jaunt around the U.K. promoting Burial Rites, in a wonderful bookshop called Booka. Surrounded by books, and the smell of freshly brewed coffee, I was genuinely pleased to meet her, and even more so on realizing that she clearly shared the same obsession for Iceland.
How did you find Sauðárkrókur?
It’s very hard. I remember the Sauðárkrókur that I first encountered. It was alien, utterly strange and difficult to fit into. I felt conspicuous, and at the same time isolated. It wasn’t helped that I was a very shy person, and I didn’t put myself out there. It would have my earlier stay much easier if I had, but I wasn’t able to, being who I was and my age. I do have specific memories of the town. I struggled. I struggled with the town, and didn’t understand it, and then it changed. For the rest of my exchange, say nine months, it became my home. I’ve been back about five times since, to Sauðárkrókur. I ended up having three host families, and the second one really helped. They had four children under the age of ten. Kids have a great way of breaking down barriers, and helped me learn Icelandic. I also joined the local theater company, which helped and helped me meet different people in the community. I love the place now, I completely love it. I think of it as home.
What do you miss the most about Iceland?
I miss the people more than anything, but I also miss the landscape. I completely fell in love with the Icelandic landscape in a way that I’m still trying to articulate the hold that it has over my heart. You know yourself, don’t you? It draws you and compels you, but at the same time makes it difficult to explain why it has a hold over me. I miss it. I miss it deeply.
I begin talking about my obsession with Iceland, and how we have written very different books, but both borne out of the inspiration that a love for Iceland provides.
Exactly, in the author’s notes to Burial Rites, I call the book a dark love letter to Iceland. I completely stand by that. That’s exactly how I feel.
Are you fluent in Icelandic?
Oh, I’m very rusty now. I learnt Icelandic when I was there, and didn’t speak any English or anything else, and to a certain degree the amount of translation I had to do for my debut helped me keep it fresh, but there is very few opportunities to speak Icelandic back in Australia, so I have become rusty. When I go to Iceland, I need a good two weeks. I can understand it, that’s not a problem, but it’s speaking it and getting my tongue back in actions around those strange vowels and rolled rs.
(There’s a question I’m dying to ask, and do so with a chuckle in my voice). Do you speak Icelandic with an Australian accent?
I don’t know! No one will tell me. One time I was in Akureyri and someone asked me if I was from Sweden, so maybe I speak it with a Swedish accent. I have no idea.
Burial Rites is about to be translated into Icelandic, for the first time. How does that feel?
I’m really excited about it. I’ve had a considerable amount of feedback from Icelanders, not just the ones I know, that has been positive and supportive. That’s been really important to me. I’ve also been contacted by a great many descendants of people who the characters in the book are based on—Natal Ketilsson, Björn Blöndal, the family at the farm—this has been very reassuring, because they are interested and encouraging. I think is due to an Icelandic open mindedness, a respect of literature and an appreciation that it does not necessarily have to adhere to a singular truth and that there may be other possibilities. I’m pleased that they’ve accepted it in that particular attitude and I’m very grateful for that.
Are you surprised by the global success of Burial Rites?
Absolutely. I never really anticipated it ever being published. I wrote it for a PhD qualification and my own personal reasons. So just seeing it on print is still the most exciting part because that’s what I really wanted for a long time. Everything else is, of course, a wonderful bonus but it does bring with it a sense of surreality and I’m quite often both overwhelmed and completely grateful for the way in which so many readers have embraced the story.
Hannah plans her next novel to be set in Ireland (she jokingly admits to being lazy, and just changing one consonant), but I know that she’ll be returning to Iceland. As we chat about Iceland until her publicist grows impatient, I realize that Hannah has a real passion for Iceland. Burial Rites is her dark love letter to the country, and one that deserves to be treasured.
Originally published on Iceland Review online.