Publication date: September 10th 2013
A young woman is condemned to death in Iceland at a time when there were no jails so a family is ordered to house her for her final months. A young priest is assigned to be her spiritual guide to repentance before her execution. All this in 1828 the summer before Agnes Magnúsdóttir is to be put to death in Hannah Kent’s debut novel, Burial Rites. Agnes has been mistreated her entire life, abandoned by her mother when she was six and with no knowledge of her father. This makes her a pauper and the only route to survival is to work on one of the farms in the valley in exchange for food and lodging.
When she is in her late twenties Agnes falls in love with Natan, a man who makes his living as an herbalist and medicine man. He invites her to move out to his isolated farm as his housekeeper and she accepts, hoping it will lead to a proposal of marriage. These hopes are dashed when she arrives and meets sixteen-year-old Sigga who welcomes her as her maid. When a suitor appears for Sigga, young violent and inappropriate as he is, Agnes looks the other way, hoping things will resolve themselves in her favor. Unfortunately, this is not the case and Fridrik’s violence escalates, leading to the murder of Natan. Agnes, Sigga and Fridrik are convicted and sent to local families to await their execution.
This order brings Agnes into the Jonsson family on their small farm. The wife, Margret views Agnes as the devil and would not allow her to stay except for the small stipend they’re given and the extra pair of hands to help with all the work. Their older daughter, Steina, is fascinated by Agnes but the younger, Lauga, worries only that the shame of living with a criminal will spoil their few prospects for marriage. As a woman who has known nothing but cruelty and neglect her entire life Agnes does little to assuage their fears with her silence and watchful eyes. She only begins to talk when the priest she has selected as her spiritual advisor ignores his directives and falls back on his innate kindness, allowing her to speak freely of her life. In this way, the past is released.
Burial Rites is based on the true story of the last woman to be executed in Iceland. With extensive research Kent brings flesh to the bare bones of Agnes but it is in writing her in the first person that she brings her to life. We are able to hear from her about the particulars of her life and ultimately, what has brought her to this place. That this is a debut novel is as surprising to me as when I read Amanda Coplin’s The Orchardist. Such young voices with so much power and grace. Kent’s prose plays the harshness of Iceland’s climate against the cold and privation of Agnes’ life but as her end nears there is warmth and kindness to be found, even from the most unexpected sources.