By: Hannah Kent
Format/Source: Paperback; my purchase
In northern Iceland, 1829, Agnes Magnusdottir is condemned to death for her part in the brutal murder of two men.
Agnes is sent to wait out the time leading to her execution on the farm of District Officer Jon Jonsson, his wife and their two daughters. Horrified to have a convicted murderess in their midst, the family avoids speaking with Agnes. Only Toti, the young assistant reverend appointed as Agnes’ spiritual guardian, is compelled to try to understand her, as he attempts to salvage her soul. As the summer months fall away to winter and the hardships of rural life force the household to work side by side, Agnes’ ill-fated tale of longing and betrayal begins to emerge. And as the days to her execution draw closer, the question burns: did she or didn’t she?
I’ve been hearing a lot of buzz about this novel since it was first published last year, and it hasn’t stopped since: shortlisted for a number of awards, including this year’s Baileys Women’s Prize in fiction, it’s quite an feat for a debut author. And the premise of the novel sounds really interesting (not to mention set in Iceland! *wants to go there one of these days*). So I was quite happy when I finally got my hands on the paperback 🙂 As an aside, I really love all of the book covers for this novel–so pretty! The publishers are on a roll with this one xD
The first thing that really struck me about this novel was the writing. It drew me to the story right from the first sentence (not of the historical documents that precede each chapter–interesting as they were–but the actual prologue of the novel) and Agnes’ story. The reader gains a feel for the bleak, haunting landscape of Iceland, the silence and the isolation, the lifestyle they inhabited and the brutal seasons. I’ve never been to Iceland (though it’s on the bucket list) but my parents have and they say it’s a very peaceful and beautiful place. Despite of the starkness of the landscape and lifestyles depicted in this novel, there’s also a haunting sense of beauty that resonates through the novel.
The story itself was quite haunting. As Agnes Mangusdottir awaits her execution, she works around the farm of District Officer Jon Jonsson while slowly recounting her life to Toti, the young assistant reverend. She’s very reluctant and uptight at first to divulge her past, which turns out to be a story of loss and abandonment, hardship and disappointment. The reader sees how Agnes became the woman she is, stern and distrustful and jaded with people, and yet she’s smart with her own hopes and dreams. Gradually her narrative turns to how she ended up under Natan’s roof and what really happened the night of the murder and her role to play. Recounting her story enables Agnes to not only tell her side of the story but over the course of her stay with Jon’s family begins to reach out to these other people who initally were as suspicious of her and the stories surrounding her crime and her trial.
Reading Agnes’ tale was quite a sad one, especially when it came to Natan and the events leading to the crime. I felt angry on her behalf for the way Natan played with her emotions (some things just never change, do they?) and how isolated she was from other people while living on his land. Social class and gender roles also play a major role in what Agnes endured over the years.
The other characters in the novel were interesting. All of the people who lived and worked under Jon Jonsson’s house all have different opinions and reactions to Agnes’ internment at the farm, as were their interactions with Agnes. It was especially interesting to see how their opinions gradually changed over the course of the novel, particularly when the winter months arrived and due to their proximity within the house begin to hear more about Agnes’ side of the story. Marget’s gradual change of opinion and interaction with Agnes was especially heartwarming to see. Toti’s emotional journey over the course of the novel was also interesting to read, how he was able to reach out and connect with Agnes and help her as she prepared for her execution.
Death permeates through this novel, hanging over like a cloud, haunting Agnes throughout her life: dead siblings, death foster parents, dead babies. Marget, Jon Jonsson’s wife, murmurs here and there quotes about death, her respiratory illness a reminder that death is close at hand. It adds to the overall starkness of the atmosphere of the Icelandic landscape, of the story itself. Agnes feels as though it has always been a part of her life and yet, without going into spoilerish details, it’s quite different when faced with your own impending mortality.
Burial Rites is a haunting, fascinating and melancholic take on one woman’s life leading up to her execution that left me silent and struck after I read the final sentence of the novel. I enjoyed the inclusion of historical documents concerning the trial itself and the bits of poetry, both surrounding Agnes as well as the haunting Icelandic hymn of death and burial. I’m glad I finally read the novel; all of the accolades and praise for the novel is very well deserved and as a debut novel is very impressive. I look foward to Hannah Kent’s future work and highly recommend this novel to anyone who enjoys historical fiction or a good read. It’s definitely a favourite read for me this year.