Hannah Kent intended her debut novel to be ‘a dark love letter to Iceland’ and I think she has succeeded. I certainly feel a desire to visit this country with the beautiful place names and unforgiving landscapes after reading Burial Rites.
This is the story of Agnes Magnusdottir the last person to be executed in Iceland back in the 19th Century. It is a story of abandonment, poverty, lust and murder. The narrative has been based on extensive research by Hannah Kent and whilst there may be some invention/speculation as to Agnes Magnusdottir’s true personality, and her relationship with the compelling Natan Ketilsson, the story on the whole has been based on historical fact.
There are several narrative voices which makes the story quite interesting. I don’t always like this device but in this instance it works. The story opens with Agnes in a very deprived state after her arrest and trial. She is relocated to her home valley and housed with an unwilling farming family for the duration of the period leading up to her execution. The family initially abhor this filthy criminal that has been brought to their croft, but as Agnes’s dignity begins to return they find themselves drawn to her and her impoverished history as she relates her story to a young priest who visits regularly to prepare Agnes for what is to come.
I liked how Kent opened each chapter with an historical document relating to the case. Ie how the axe was to be made, how much it was to cost, who they chose as executioner and why, and the specific preparations for the day of the execution.
This is not a happy story, but it is beautifully written. I did it as a Bolinda audio book and the narrator was excellent. Those Icelandic names just rolled off her tongue and I found myself repeating them because they are so gorgeous to pronounce.
After I read the book I went on the internet to find out more about Agnes Magnusdottir and whilst I mainly just found articles on Hannah Kent I did stumble across this blog post which I found interesting: