Debut Australian Novelist Makes World Headlines

In the midst of the general gloom and doom about the state of the worldwide publishing industry, it’s a welcome relief to celebrate some good news.

Burial Rites, the debut novel from 27-year-old Australian novelist Hannah Kent, has been at the centre of a frenzied worldwide bidding war – and last week, her agent closed international publishing deals worth over a million dollars.

(Hannah Kent)

(Hannah Kent)

Picador Australia is reported to have paid $350,00 for Australian and New Zealand publishing rights, while separate deals have been struck with Picador in the UK and Little, Brown in the US (the latter alone is said to be worth ‘seven figures’). Translation rights have been sold to France, Italy, Brazil and the Netherlands.

The book centres on the true story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last person to be publicly beheaded in Iceland, after being convicted of the murder of her former employer in 1829.

Kent ‘fascinated’ by true story since she was a teenager

Kent has been fascinated by the story since she discovered it as a teenager on a student exchange in Iceland; she later returned to research the case for her PhD in creative writing at Flinders University in Adelaide.

‘I couldn’t stop thinking about what it must have been like for her to become such an outcast in the small community she had grown up in,’ she said. ‘Burial Rites is my attempt at trying to understand this woman and why she’s been portrayed the way she has.’

The publishing deal isn’t the first big win for Kent – though it is of the life-changing variety. Burial Rites won the inaugural Writing Australia manuscript prize last year, which included a mentorship with an Australian writer.

Kent has been working with Pulitzer prize-winning author Geraldine Brooks, whose voice is part of the chorus of praise surrounding the book. ‘Here is an original new voice, with a deep and lovely grasp of language and story,’ she said. ‘Burial Rites is an accomplished gem, its prose crisp and sparkling as its northern setting.’

Real-life Agnes ‘represented as … Lady Macbeth’

Kent says the real-life Agnes ‘was represented in unequivocal terms as a monster or a witch, the Lady Macbeth behind the murder, a very manipulative, scheming woman. It didn’t take into consideration her experiences or the struggles that she probably suffered.’

As told in Burial Rites, Agnes is sent to live with a family at their isolated residence for the duration of her trial, due to a lack of prisons in northern Iceland. She is treated with disdain and caution by the family, who are horrified at having a cold murderer in their midst. A young assistant priest, Toti, appointed as her spiritual guardian, must regularly visit her in an attempt to salvage her soul. Through Toti’s visits, the family learns more about Agnes and the crime she’s apparently committed. As the days to the beheading draw closer, they realise all is not what it first seemed.

Picador Australia’s Alex Craig told the Advertiser that the novel is one of the most assured debuts she has seen. ‘Hannah has this extraordinary ability to combine really imaginative storytelling with incredible craftsmanship.’

Good news for ‘everyone involved in our industry’

Melbourne bookseller Martin Shaw, books division manager at Readings, sees this as not just one writer’s good fortune, but a promising sign for a tumultuous Australian publishing industry. ‘Obviously I’m thrilled for Hannah,’ he says, ‘but I also think it’s a fillip for everyone involved in our industry: all the other budding writers out there, for instance, and their editors and literary agents.’

‘Namely that if you have a strong, well-written tale that takes its readers to a place they care about – let’s just call it the ‘magic of fiction’ – that there is a clear hunger for such work amongst publishers, and the readers they serve. And a market value that can, as in this case, be genuinely staggering.’

Kent is co-founder and deputy editor of Australian literary journal Kill Your Darlings; she has written on the journal’s blog about stints writing and researching her novel in Iceland. She has also written for the Wheeler Centre about Icelandic literature.

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