The last instance of capital punishment in Iceland took place in January of 1830, when Agnes Magnusdottir was beheaded after being convicted of murdering two men, Natan Ketilsson and Petur Jonsson. Nearly two-hundred years later, first-time novelist Hannah Kent, a young woman from Australia, has chosen to imagine the last few months of Agnes’ life in the new book Burial Rites. The story begins about six months before the execution, when the family of a local government official learns that they have been asked to house the prisoner while she waits for her sentence to be carried out. Agnes arrives at the farm, where she lives as a servant for several months, working alongside the family and slowly revealing the story of her life to them, as well as to the young priest she has asked to be her spiritual guide at the end of her life.
So, why should you read a rather grim book about the life and death of a poor, murderous peasant woman in Iceland? Because of passages like this:
“Those who are not being dragged to their deaths cannot understand how the heart grows hard and sharp, until it is a nest of rocks with only an empty egg in it. I am barren; nothing will grow from me anymore. I am the dead fish drying in the cold air. I am the dead bird on the shore. I am dry, I am not certain I will bleed when they drag me out to meet the axe. No, I am still warm, my blood still howls in my veins like the wind itself, and it shakes the empty nest and asks where all the birds have gone, where have they gone?”
Kent’s writing is rich and deep—she takes historical facts and breathes life into them, while also filling in the blanks in the written record with a realistic portrayal of a woman who is both proud and vulnerable, afraid of death and ready to face it. Kent moves between a third-person narrator, first-person point of view from Agnes, and the occasional historical document—translated from originals still present in archives in Iceland. The book started a bit slowly for me, simply because the names, locations, and social customs were so foreign and seemingly remote. It took a while to orient myself to the setting of the book, but once I did and Agnes began to share her story I became enthralled and could not put the book down.
“They will say ‘Agnes’ and see the spider, the witch caught in the webbing of her own fateful weaving. They might see the lamb circled by ravens, bleating for a lost mother. But they will not see me. I will not be there.”
I have already decided to add this book to my list of favorites from the year. It is a difficult book and does not have a happy ending, but weeks after reading it I am still haunted by Agnes and her story. I wonder what I would have done with my life if I had been born in that time and place. This is a book about narrative—about the narratives we tell ourselves, those that other people tell about us, and even the official narratives that are constructed for us. It is beautiful and it is harsh—much like Agnes and her brief life and death.