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Hannah Kent: Burial Rites

Having recently read twenty Icelandic novels in a row, I was curious to see how a foreigner might handle Iceland, particularly one coming from a country that is a lot hotter than Iceland. Hannah Kent does a very good job, getting the mood of Iceland: the grim life, the poverty, the belief in spirit forces and dreams. This story is set in 1829. Three people have been convicted of murdering two men on a farm. They are Fridrik Sigurdsson, a farmer’s son, and two maids, Sigrídur Gudmundsdóttir and Agnes Magnúsdóttir. The story follows Agnes Magnúsdóttir. The three have been locked up in different parts of the region but, now that sentence has been passed and awaits only ratification by the Danish Supreme Court (Iceland was, at the time, a colony of Denmark), it has been decided to move them, as the region has no proper prison. Agnes Magnúsdóttir has to stay at Kornsá, a farm belonging to Jón Jónsson, and his wife Margrét. When the District Commissioner arrives to gives the unwelcome news to the family, Jón and Margrét are away and he has to give the news to their two adult daughters, the older and not very bright Steina and the younger but much brighter Lauga. Their parents are not happy with the news when they return but have to accept it.

From this point, we follow Agnes Magnúsdóttir’ story, both as told in the third person, involving her stay at Kornsá and, in particular her relationship with the three women and Assistant Reverend Thorvardur Jónsson as well as her own thoughts. Agnes is clearly an intelligent woman but has had a hard life. She was illegitimate. Her mother soon abandoned her and though a father was named, she is convinced that he was not the real father, who was a rich married man who did not want his paternity revealed. She has worked as a maid at various farms since then and had stayed at Kornsá before, when a young child, when there were different owners. We soon learn that one of the few men who had been kind to her was her previous employer, who was one of the men murdered, Natan Ketilsson. When we first meet her, she is not in good shape. She has clearly been beaten. She has not been allowed to wash or change clothes. She has been badly fed and, on the journey to Kornsá, given nothing to eat or drink. Margrét, who is clearly not sympathetic to the idea of having her at the farm and, in particular, does not want her in contact with her daughters, treats her fairly well. When she arrives, Margrét bathes, changes and feeds her. She expects Agnes to work hard and she does. In return she is treated fairly. Indeed, she is even allowed to use a scythe, something some of the men who harvest with her think is inadvisable.

We are also following her thoughts. She is very susceptible to the few kindly acts she has experienced in her life. This means she remembers Natan Ketilsson with fondness, she is grateful to Margrét and she remembers the kindness of a man who helped her across a stream. This man was Assistant Reverend Thorvardur Jónsson, known to all as Totí. He is a young pastor, son of a pastor. She has specifically asked for him to be her spiritual guide, as she prepares for death. He does not know why, having completely forgotten helping her at the stream. When he does visit her, his complete lack of experience makes him most unsuitable for the task in hand and both he and Agnes wonder whether he is the man for the job. What is most interesting about her thoughts is that while she thinks of her fate, of Natan Ketilsson, of her life at Kornsá and of her early life, she does not seem to think of either the murder (if she is guilty) or of the injustice she is facing (if she is innocent). She does think of the unfairness of her treatment (they wrested my statement of that night and made me seem malevolent. Everything I said was taken from me and altered until the story wasn’t my own). There is one comment she makes – Criminal. The word hangs in the air. Heavy, unmoved by the bluster of the wind. I want to shake my head. That word does not belong to me, I want to say. It doesn’t fit me or who I am. It’s another word, and it belongs to another person. But what is the use of protesting against language?. However, she feels that she is not a criminal, not necessarily that she is innocent. The two victims also have histories. There’s people here who claim that Natan Ketilsson’s mother had foresight – she dreamt things and they’d come to pass, see. Now, when she was pregnant with Natan she dreamt that a man came to her and told her she would have a boy. The dream man asked if she’d name the boy after him, and when she agreed, the man told her his name was Satan.’ She took fright. ‘The priest changed it to Natan, and they thought that was decent. Pétur Jónsson, the other victim, was facing sentencing for robbery and receiving stolen property.

Kent gradually gives us Agnes’ full story, ending, of course, with the events surrounding the two murders. The story is based on an actual event, whereby these three people were charged and convicted of murdering the two men. In an afterword, Kent tells us that there have been several books published in Iceland on the subject, all taking different views. She admits that her interpretation is just that – an interpretation. The interpretation she has chosen shows Agnes to be an intelligent and outspoken woman, qualities which may often be admired in men, while women are condemned for just the same qualities. Kent clearly admires Agnes for her stoicism, her intelligence, her outspokenness, her ability to get on with the job at hand, her knowledge of a variety of domestic crafts, including medical ones, and also for her passion, when passion is called for. As a result, we cannot but admire Kent’s Agnes and feel great sympathy for her plight, even if we wonder whether it might not have been possible for her to explain her case more clearly and, indeed, earlier. Nevertheless, this is a very fine novel and Agnes a fascinating creation. While there have been novels about men facing execution, there are not many about a woman facing execution. There are a few: A Thousand Splendid Suns, Woman at Point Zero and The Execution of Noa P. Singleton are obvious examples. However, it is not a major topic for novelists and it is interesting that Kent has not only chosen to write about it but to set it in such a remote (for an Australian) country. However, I can say that it is a very fine book and reads very much as though it could have been written by an Icelander.

Publishing history

First published 2013 by Picador