Based on historical facts, Burial Rites by Hannah Kent is the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last person to be executed in Iceland in 1830. Condemned to death for her part in the murder of two men, with no prisons in Iceland at the time, Agnes is sent to wait out the time leading to her execution on the farm of the District Officer, his wife and their two daughters. We know how this is going to end so what makes this a slow-building but compulsive story is the psychological, emotional and spiritual journey we are brought on as we learn more about Agnes’ past. The story is told in alternating passages, moving between third person narrative, showing a broader picture, and Agnes’ own voice, showing the torment, the fear, the superstition, the desire, the longing, the jealousy, and the betrayal that have plagued her.
The how and the why behind the murder is probably not even the most interesting part of this story, it’s the portrait of Agnes that Kent builds, showing a life of hardship from the beginning, drawing us through Iceland’s beautiful but bleak and often unforgiving terrain and climate. The Nordic countries have a long tradition of storytelling, and I loved how Agnes’ story comes to light through her conversations with the young priest, often huddled by a fire or in the kitchen. Agnes is a fascinating character, stoic and silent to an extent, as if resigned to the beliefs people have about her and unwilling to strive to change their minds, but by means of gentle persuasion the young priest coaxes her story from her, and what follows is a slow, atmospheric unfurling of the past, revealing more truths inch by inch. The dynamic between Agnes and the mother of the household is also beautifully developed; a no-nonsense woman, initially furious at having a murderess among them, but as the story unfolds she looks for herself and begins to see the woman before her rather than the reputation that precedes her; allowing Kent to explore the ethical quandary of whether a good person is capable of a bad thing.
As in Devotion, which I read previously and loved, the writing is lyrical and haunting, and Kent beautifully contrasts the vast landscapes, equal parts terrifying and breath-taking, with the claustrophobic and stifling living quarters; capturing the grit, grime and freezing temperatures of rural Iceland at the beginning of 19th century, as well as the conflicting senses of both loneliness and suffocation endured. A beautifully written book, and harrowing story, that will stay with you.
Burial Rites was published in 2013 by Pan Macmillan.
Hannah Kent was born in Adelaide in 1985. She is the co-founder and publishing director of Australian literary journal Kill Your Darlings. In 2011 she won the inaugural Writing Australia Unpublished Manuscript Award. She is also the author of Burial Rites, The Good People and Devotion.