They said I must die. They said that I stole breath from men, and now they must steal mine.
Agnus Magnúsdóttir was the last woman to be executed in Iceland; Burial Rites is a fictional account of her story, based on – and incorporating – existing documentation.
Magnúdóttir was found guilty, along with Fridrik Sigurdsson and Sigrídur Gudmundsdóttir of the murders of Natan Ketilsson and Pétur Jónsson at Natan’s farm. Agnus and Sigrídur worked for him; Fridrik did odd jobs, helping the women when Natan was away, and was engaged to Sigrídur.
The novel begins with Agnus being moved to Kornsá, to the house of Jón Jónsson, a District Officer, a house he shares with his wife Margrét and their daughters, Lauga and Steina. The decision to place her in their home has been made by Björn Blöndal, District Commissioner:
…I decided they should be placed on farms, homes of upright Christians, who would inspire repentance by good example, and who would benefit from the work these prisoners do as they await their judgement.
This is an unsatisfactory arrangement for them but the family need the compensation that will be paid for the task.
Part of the novel is seen from the family’s point of view; we see how Agnus’ presence affects them and the way they are viewed by other residents of the area. But we are also privy to Agnus’ thoughts and to those of a priest, Assistant Reverend Thorvardur.
Reverend Thorvadar Jónsson is chosen by Agnus to be her spiritual guide for her remaining days; she selected him after recalling him showing her kindness on a rural path some years earlier. Kent uses him to allow Agnus to talk about her childhood and some of the events leading to the murders.
The most interesting voice though is the one Kent gives to Agnus who is allowed to speak to us in first person:
If I speak, it will be in bubbles of air. They will not be able to keep my words for themselves. They will see the whore, the madwoman, the murderess, the female dripping blood into the grass and laughing with her mouth choked with dirt. They will say ‘Agnes’ and see the spider, the witch caught in the webbing of her own fateful weaving. They might see the lamb circled by ravens, bleating for a lost mother. But they will not see me. I will not be there.
There’s much that I liked about the novel – the way Kent evokes the isolation of the Icelandic countryside; the juxtaposition of the accepted view of Agnus’ behaviour and personality with the Agnus the reader sees; the emotive (without being overblown) writing in the chapter when Agnus is led to her death. However, I did have a couple of issues that, while not enough to ruin my enjoyment of the book, are significant enough to discuss. Firstly, the use of Reverend Thorvadar as someone for Agnus to tell her story to began well but in the later stages of the novel seemed to become merely a device rather than a realistic conversation and secondly, the book being based on real events seemed to restrict it as a work of fiction. That might sound like an odd thing to say but if you’re being brought back to the fact it’s a fictionalised account, the treatment of it’s not keeping you immersed in the story.
I’d been looking forward to reading Burial Rites – many people whose opinions I trust rate it highly – and although it didn’t work for me as well as I’d hoped it would, I do think Hannah Kent’s a good writer and I look forward to reading her next book.