Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

This debut novel, shortlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2014, is set in Iceland in 1829- 1830 and is a historical novel, based on real events. The book deals with the last few months in the life of Agnes Magnusdottir, who has been convicted for her part in the murders of two men, Nathan Ketilsson and Petur Jonsson, up until her execution in January 1830. According to the information at the back of the book, Hannah Kent became interested in this story when travelling through the north of Iceland as an exchange student in 2003, when she came across ‘an  unusual tract of landscape: a valley mouth pimpled with hills’. She asked her host family if there was any significance attached to this landscape and was told that it was there that the last woman to be executed in Iceland, Agnes Magnusdottir, had been beheaded. Some time later,when looking for a subject for her Creative Writing PhD, Kent returned to Iceland to research the story of Agnes and the Illugastadir murders. She found contradictions in the accounts of events and of the character of the murdered Nathan Ketilsson and Agnes Magnusdottir, who was somewhere characterised as a ‘witch, stirring up murder’. Hannah Kent wished to give a different and ‘more ambiguous’ account of this woman. The novel starts with Agnes,some months after conviction, being brought to lodge with the Jonsson family pending execution. She has been beaten and brutally treated in custody and the family are appalled at having this convicted murderess in their home. Agnes asks for the young priest Toti to visit her to give her absolution and it is through her conversations with him and Margret Jonsson that we learn about Agnes’ early life and events leading up to the murders. Agnes has had a brutal and abusive childhood: the illegitimate child of a servant she was dragged from farmstead to farmstead, neglected and abandoned by her mother, becoming a servant herself, when she met Nathan Ketilsson,  He is a charismatic and powerful character, renowned in the area as a healer but also a womaniser. Agnes , vulnerable and in need of love, falls for him and takes up his offer of a  job at his farm as his housekeeper. When she gets there it seems that her role is unclear and it is Nathan’s manipulativeness which contributes to events leading up to his murder. So on the one hand we sympathise with Agnes on account of her pitiful and loveless childhood and the cruel treatment meted out to her by Nathan. On the other hand we are told that Agnes is an intelligent woman; as a child she was taught to read by her foster mother and she loved the sagas which she could recite. As an adult we are told that she tells a good story and likes the hushed attention given to her in the Jonsson household when she is talking about her past. This raises the question: to what extent is she telling stories about the murder too? In the second half of the book, where Agnes is describing the goings on at Nathan’s farm, involving the two other characters convicted of murder, the historical novel leans over into the crime thriller genre when the writer in some none too subtle clues and hints keeps us guessing and changing our minds about the different parts played by all three. Of course, the outcome is known from the beginning of the book: we know that Nathan and Petur are murdered, that three people have been convicted and that Agnes will be executed for the murders. Yet our interest in and sympathy for Agnes, built up in the first part of the book, leaves us gripped and keen to find out what her role actually was. In this gripping and moving tale Hannah Kent has certainly achieved what she set out to do: to give another, more ambiguous account of Agnes Magnusdottir. Agnes’ body was finally taken from the place of execution to the consecrated ground of a churchyard in 1934. The title ‘Burial Rites’ suggests that the novel, with its more generous and human account of the story, will play its part in bringing Agnes to rest. (This review is based  on a presentation given at the Hope Valley Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction evening  given by myself and another book group member).

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