After a week away from blogging I am back. Today I’m talking about Burial Rites by Hannah Kent, which I’ve been wanting to read since it came out late last year. Based on real events, Agnes Magnusdottir was the last woman sentenced to the death penalty in Iceland in 1829 for her role in a double-murder. Its premise reminded me of Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood, which I loved. Also, a book set in Iceland sounded very interesting to me because I haven’t read much Icelandic literature, and I find the both scenery and isolation of the country to be intriguing.
Hannah Kent writes beautifully. Her characters all have different voices and there is no judgement from the narrator: I like how she gets into the minds of all of her characters. Agnes, like Grace from Alias Grace, is an interesting character: is she guilty or not? Her version of events is convincing, but ultimately it’s left for the reader to decide. Kent wrote in the afterword that a lot of books published about the case have treated Agnes as some sort of witch, making men commit murder, and Kent sought to put a different side for the story across. But, obviously, it is still fictional.
I like the effect Agnes has on Toti, the Reverend. He is drawn to her, willing to walk through a snowstorm to get to her even when he is very ill. I like the structure of the story too; it begins with officials deciding that Agnes will be placed in a government worker’s house until she is executed. So many times officials make decisions and people are left to get on with them. Blondal wants to make an example of Agnes’ lawlessness, so decides to leave her with a family. He then disappears and the real story begins.
I learned a lot about Iceland from the novel: the long winters, the things they use to get through them, the foods they need. The sense of isolation from the world, and often from anyone outside the home due to snowstorms, is palpable. Kent creates the small community of characters who are at first afraid of the ‘murderess’ but who then listen to her story. This creates a sense of understanding between the characters; I appreciated this because I don’t think that people tend to be wholly good or evil, I think that people have stories to tell. Hannah Kent understands this well.
But this can’t save Agnes; we know that she is the last woman executed by the state in Iceland, which makes her attempts at getting a reprieve all the more tragic. I thought that this was a really thoughtful book, well imagined and compassionate. And it’s a debut novel! I can’t wait to see what Kent will write next.