Set against Iceland's stark landscape, Hannah Kent brings to vivid life the story of Agnes, who, charged with the brutal murder of her former master, is sent to an isolated farm to await execution. Read more...
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Set against Iceland's stark landscape, Hannah Kent brings to vivid life the story of Agnes, who, charged with the brutal murder of her former master, is sent to an isolated farm to await execution.
Horrified at the prospect of housing a convicted murderer, the family at first avoids Agnes. Only Toti, a priest Agnes has mysteriously chosen to be her spiritual guardian, seeks to understand her. But as Agnes's death looms, the farmer's wife and their daughters learn there is another side to the sensational story they've heard.
Riveting and rich with lyricism, BURIAL RITES evokes a dramatic existence in a distant time and place, and asks the question, how can one woman hope to endure when her life depends upon the stories told by others?"
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2013-06-17
- Reviewer: Staff
Kent’s debut delves deep into Scandinavian history, not to mention matters of storytelling, guilt, and silence. Based on the true story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the novel is set in rural Iceland in 1829. Agnes is awaiting execution for the murder of her former employer and his friend, not in a prison—there are none in the area—but at a local family’s farm. Jón Jónsson, the father, grudgingly accepts this thankless task as part of his responsibility as a regional official, but his wife and daughters’ reactions range from silent resentment to outright fear. After settling in to the household, Agnes requests the company of a young priest, to whom she confesses parts of her story, while narrating the full tale only to the reader, who, like the priest, “provide her with a final audience to her life’s lonely narrative.” The multilayered story paints sympathetic and complex portraits of Agnes, the Jónssons, and the young priest, whose motives for helping the convict are complicated. Kent smoothly incorporates her impressive research— for example, she opens many of the chapters with documents that come directly from archival sources—while giving life to these historical figures and suspense to their tales. Agent: Daniel Lazar, Writers House. (Sept.)
An Icelandic tale of guilt and truth
Iceland might be a swinging place now, but it wasn’t so in the 1820s. People lived on farmsteads that only survived through endless toil. Everything was filthy; the country was chilly even in summer; and society was ruled by a joyless, punitive piety. The death penalty consisted of being separated from your head via order of His Majesty in Denmark. Such is the setting for Australian writer Hannah Kent’s dark but humane first novel, Burial Rites.
Agnes Magnúsdøttir is a pauper and serving woman who’s been arrested and condemned to death for the murder of her employer and lover, Natan, a man looked upon by the country folk as a shady character—his very name is a play on the name Satan, it’s said. To be fair, he is miserably cruel. He hits Agnes and never considers her as anything more than a comfort woman. He has a baby with another woman and sleeps with the other serving girl. But Agnes, who narrates much of the otherwise third-person narrative, remains in love with Natan. So why would she murder him? And if she didn’t kill him, why doesn’t she proclaim her innocence?
Because there are no prisons in their region of Iceland, Agnes is sent to live with the family of a district officer. This isn’t as comfortable as it sounds, for the family at the farm at Kornså are only a tad less poor than other local farmers. The officer’s consumptive wife, Margrét, resents Agnes’ invasion of her home, until her own natural goodness and maternal instincts take over. But the younger daughter loathes Agnes, while the older is strangely drawn to her almost from the beginning. Added to the mix is the callow assistant reverend, nicknamed Tøti, whom Agnes calls upon to be her confessor and who quickly becomes fascinated with her.
Kent has a sturdy grasp of place and history, as well as a talent for creating memorable characters—from Margrét’s family to their eternally pregnant and gossipy neighbor and the uncertain and smitten young priest. And, of course, Agnes. In this day and age, it’s not politically correct to admire a woman who’s in thrall to a brute like Natan, but there’s no doubt of Agnes’ strength of character, her wisdom and practicality (in things other than love) and her essential, vulnerable humanity. Based on a true story, Burial Rites gives us a vivid portrayal of a distant time and land that still somehow feels familiar.