10th July 2014
Hannah Kent has created a tragic yet beautiful masterpiece in the telling of this story, which reminds me not only of the great sagas of the Icelandic tradition, but dark and brooding Norse poetry, as well as vintage Laxness. Kent has captured the essence of a wintry 19th century Iceland in a jar, for all its harshness, and then spilled it onto the page in stunning prose. Kent’s descriptions are so powerful, that your senses react to them instinctively, as if you were there, in spite of how uncomfortable those sensations may be at times.
“Up in the highlands blizzards howl like the widows of fishermen and the wind blisters the skin off your face. Winter comes like a punch in the dark. The uninhabited places are as cruel as any executioner.”
The tale – based on a true story - is that of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, a woman who has been sentenced to die for her part in the gruesome murder of two men in North Iceland in 1828, along with her co-conspirators Fridrik Sigurdsson and Sigrídur Gudmundsdóttir. The two deceased, local rogues Natan Ketilsson and Petúr Jónsson, were beaten, stabbed and then burned to death in a croft.
Agnes is initially held in Storá-Borg where she is brutally treated by her guards, which leads to the district commissioner, Björn Blöndal, to have her transferred to the farmstead Kornsá to await her execution. It is here she is put into the employ of Jón Jónsson, the farmer and his wife Margrét; the latter immediately puts her to work on the farm as a typical servant girl.
“Endless days of dark indoors and hateful glances are enough to set a rime on anyone’s bones.”
Margrét is understandably bemused to have a murderer living alongside her two daughters Lauga and Steina, and is wary of allowing Agnes to be near them, for fear of her influence as well as her perceived evilness. However Agnes shows an aptitude for farmwork and as Margrét relies more and more on her skills around the farm, she warms to her and begins to take more of an interest in her.
Tóti Jónsson is the assistant reverend assigned to Agnes at her own request. After failing initially to engage with Agnes through religious verses and prayers, he relaxes and becomes more like a counsellor to Agnes, much to the chagrin of Blöndal who believes she should be reading relevant scripture to prepare her for her end.
“Any woman knows that a thread, once woven, is fixed in place; the only way to smooth a mistake is to let it all unravel.”
Tóti – and eventually Margrét also - lends a friendly ear to the condemned woman, and she opens up to tell her tragic story, through which we start to learn the circumstances of her life, up to and including the events which led up to the murders at Illugistaðir. In particular, the story Agnes tells of her mother and younger sister is heart-breaking. It is a scene which will stay with you for some time, charged with raw emotion and leaving a feeling of numbness and pity at its end.
“Cruel birds, ravens, but wise. And creatures should be loved for their wisdom if they cannot be loved for kindness.”
Throughout this story, you cannot help but empathise at times with Agnes; her intelligence shines through upon hearing her elegant and eloquent personal thoughts, and her resigned acceptance of her fate adds to the darkness of this novel. Throughout the novel, the proverbial doomsday clock is always ticking for Agnes, and though you know that her judgment day is coming, you simply don’t want that clock to stop for one minute.
“Those who are not being dragged to their deaths cannot understand how the heart grows hard and sharp, until it is a nest of rocks with only an empty egg in it.”
I was completely engrossed in the novel from start to finish, and it has left me wanting more. Burial Rites is one of the finest books I have read in a long time, and I expect huge things from Hannah Kent in years to come. Given her level of research into this novel, I can only assume she will put similar groundwork into her next project.
Rating: 5/5 stars
About the author:
Hannah Kent was born in Adelaide in 1985. As a teenager she travelled to Iceland on a Rotary Exchange, where she first heard the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir.
Hannah is the co-founder and publishing director of Australian literary journal Kill Your Darlings, and is completing her PhD at Flinders University. In 2011 she won the inaugural Writing Australia Unpublished Manuscript Award.
Burial Rites is her first novel. It has been translated into twenty languages.