Hannah Kent’s debut Burial Rites is a historical novel about the final days of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last woman beheaded in Iceland in the early 19th-century. Agnes is accused of complicity in the murders of Natan Ketilsson and Pétur Jónsson. At the beginning of the novel, the District Commissioner assigns Agnes to a family in rural Kornsá, where she must live and work until execution day. As you might expect, Jón and Margrét are not too pleased to have an infamous murderess living under their roof. Only one of their two daughters – Steina – tries to befriend Agnes. Lauga is repulsed by her presence. On her request, Agnes is also assigned a spiritual adviser named Thorvardur (Tóti) Jónsson. Though only an assistant priest, Tóti must accompany Agnes to her execution. Agnes remembered meeting him as a child.
Because Burial Rites is told alternatively in first and third person narrative, the reader encounters Agnes’ stories through several perspectives. In addition to giving us an intimate portrait of one woman, Hannah Kent introduces us to life in 19th-century rural Iceland. Daily chores include gutting sheep, preparing and cooking blood sausages, and stoking a fire with dung. The novel is powerful and intimate without being overly sentimental.
I can’t believe that I’ve put off reading historical fiction for so long! It is really the perfect genre for a literature student who works on stories from the archives. And Kent’s novel brings the past to life. The setting, the characters, and the dialogue are so compelling that I did not want to put the book down. Agnes’ host family may not be facing execution, but their lives are far from uneventful. They face heavy snowstorms and violent illnesses. Yet, nearly all of the characters are literate; Agnes is described as a lover of the sagas despite being a poor farmhand. Kent reminds the reader that Iceland has had one of the highest literacy rates in the world since the 19th century.
Female executions are rarely discussed in fiction or real life. Burial Rites deserves all of the acclaim that it has received. This work is beautifully-written and thought-provoking in its simplicity. I look forward to reading other works by Hannah Kent.