It’s 1829 and Agnes – along with two other people – has been found guilty of murdering her lover, Natan Ketilsson. Due to the lack of prisons in the north of Iceland, Agnes has been sent to the farm of District Officer Jón Jónsson where she will await the day of her beheading. Understandably, Jón’s wife and daughters are nervous and angry about having a convicted murderer coming to stay with them, but as they have no choice in the matter they must find a way to deal with their fear and distrust.
Agnes is visited at the farm by Assistant Reverend Thorvárdur Jónsson (known as Tóti), the young priest she has chosen to act as her confidant and spiritual adviser. At first Tóti is surprised to have been given this task and isn’t sure how he can help Agnes, but he soon discovers that all she needs is someone to talk to about her past and about the events leading up to the night of the murder. As Tóti and the Jónsson family listen, the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir begins to unfold.
It seemed that everyone was reading Burial Rites a while ago, especially when it was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction earlier in the year. Despite the good reviews, it was not a book that sounded very appealing to me and I wasn’t planning to read it, but when I noticed it in the library I thought I would give it a try. Now that I’ve read it, I can understand why it has been so successful – it’s beautifully written, the setting is stunning and the atmosphere is haunting – and I did enjoy it, though maybe not as much as other people have.
I loved the Icelandic setting. This is not a story that would have worked had it been set in any other time or place. Nineteenth century Iceland, its landscape, its weather and its small rural communities are as important to the novel as the characters and the plot. The author does a great job of portraying both the isolation of farms and crofts such as Jón Jónsson’s at Kornsá or Natan’s at Illugastadir and the claustrophobia of daily life (entire families lived and slept in one room, known as the badstofa). The book includes extras such as a map and pronunciation guide for readers who, like me, know very little about Iceland.
While Agnes tells part of her story herself in first person, other sections of the novel are told from other perspectives and these are important in helping us to understand the perceptions people have of Agnes. It’s not surprising that Jón’s wife, Margrét, and daughters, Steina and Lauga, react with fear and suspicion at first, but as they learn more about Agnes they begin to adjust the way they think about her. Tóti’s feelings also change over the course of the novel, and so does the reader’s: at the beginning of the book we know nothing about Agnes and have no idea whether she is really guilty or not; by the end, we are left with a sense of sadness and injustice, especially on learning that the other woman accused of the murder (who happens to be younger and prettier) is given the opportunity to appeal while Agnes isn’t.
Of course, the account the fictional Agnes gives of her life and the circumstances of Natan’s murder is not necessarily what happened in real life and we don’t know whether Iceland’s last execution really was a miscarriage of justice or not. Burial Rites is a combination of fact and fiction, the result of both careful research and the author’s imagination. I thought it was interesting that in her author’s note, Hannah Kent says that she doesn’t think of Agnes Magnúsdóttir as a feminist heroine or even a heroine at all; just a ‘human who does not want to die, and no more’. But whatever else Agnes was, she was a character I cared about and I’m pleased to have had the chance to read her story.