Burial Rites is a debut novel by Hannah Kent and is a fictionalisation of the story of the last woman to be executed in Iceland, Agnes Magnusdottir. Agnes and Fridrik Sigurdsson were found guilty of the murder of Natan Ketilsson and Petur Jonsson, and were beheaded for their crimes in 1830.
Rather than being held in a prison, Agnes stayed in the house of Jon Jonsson, the District Officer of Vatnsdalur, before her execution. The novel is told from the perspectives of Agnes herself, Margret the wife of Jon Jonsson, and Assistant Reverend Thorvardur Jonsson (otherwise known as Toti) who was responsible for Agnes’ spiritual wellbeing before her death.
It’s an incredibly atmospheric novel. Hannah Kent gives such a vivid portrayal of Iceland in the 19th century that I felt cold every time I read it! It’s so bleak, but I felt completely transported with the story and could picture the surroundings so clearly in my head. I think it’s probably the most atmospheric novel I’ve read all year, and perhaps longer than that. I did struggle a bit with the names of the characters and places though. A pronunciation guide was very helpfully included at the front of the book, but I still found it quite difficult to read them because I couldn’t work out how they should sound, and I need to be able to hear the words in my head to read them properly. It did disrupt the rhythm of my reading, but that’s because I’m not familiar with the Icelandic language, and I found the inclusion of all the authentic names really did contribute a lot to the setting and my visualisation of the world. It helped me to feel completely immersed in the story and fully believe that it could only have been set in Iceland.
The story itself is quite harrowing. I grew quite attached to the character of Agnes, and so I didn’t want to believe that she was a cold-blooded murderer. The way Hannah Kent handled this was quite clever, and she set up the situation in such a way that Agnes did play a role in the killing, but not from any murderous feelings she harboured towards the victims. It was clear throughout the story, even if it wasn’t clear to Agnes herself, that she was being used and manipulated by Natan, who she was having an affair with. He was notorious for sleeping around, he was incredibly cruel towards her and even left her naked in the snow when she could quite easily have frozen to death, and the most frustrating part of the whole story was that Agnes was still in love with him, even though he was an absolute bastard. And yet despite all of this, she killed him out of love. He had already been fatally wounded, and so she stabbed him to end his suffering. I actually really appreciated that, because it was clear from the outset that Agnes was going to have to die (after all, she was historically the last person to be executed in Iceland), and I don’t think I could bear it if she had been framed and was actually innocent of murder. The way it was written though, she was responsible for Natan’s death and so the punishment wasn’t unjust (by law anyway, although I personally don’t think the death penalty is ever acceptable), but her motives were misunderstood. Agnes wasn’t a bad person. She had been treated horrendously, and she did what she thought was for the best, and I really appreciated that because it was the perfect solution to her characterisation.
Of course, we don’t know whether or not that was true. This is very much a fictionalisation because there isn’t a lot of evidence about Agnes herself and the life she led before the trial and her execution. Hannah Kent has certainly written a compelling story though. It sucked me in to the point where I really, really dreaded the end. In fact, I put the book down for a while because I couldn’t bear the thought of reading Agnes’ execution. I spent the rest of the book wishing for some kind of reprieve, and hoping that Agnes would be spared or the book would end before that point, but I knew all along that it wouldn’t be the case. It was clear from the outset that Agnes was the last woman to be executed in Iceland, and so she had to die. It was that thought that made me feel quite panicky throughout Burial Rites, as I realised from fairly early on that I felt very sympathetically towards Agnes, and that I’d actually grown quite attached to her. I think that’s what made the story so much more powerful though, because the reader knows all along what the ending is going to be and yet they keep reading because they want to see if the punishment is justified, if Agnes really was a murderer, and if so what drove her to it.
It’s a very well written book and certainly unputdownable, unless you’re panicking too much about the ending like me of course. I have to say though, the ending itself was a bit of a disappointment for me. I put off reading it for as long as I felt able because I thought it was going to be far too emotional, and because I’d been reading another book at the same time where a character who I was desperately hoping until the very last possible moment would be saved from their fate had also been mercilessly killed, and I didn’t think I could face reading that again so soon. The execution itself was nowhere near as emotional as I thought it would be though. I don’t know if that’s because I was successful in creating some distance between myself and the book, or if it’s because the story telling became a lot more matter of fact at that point. I was both relieved and disappointed that I wasn’t sobbing my eyes out during the last few pages, and I think this is also partly because I was both satisfied and unsatisfied with the ending, if it’s possible to feel both at once, which I think it is when you’re reading at least. Books are very conflicting on the old emotions. I was satisfied because the book reached a conclusion which I knew we were heading to throughout, but I was unsatisfied because it was the grimmest of endings and I had so desperately (but knowingly fruitlessly) wanted Agnes to be saved. I think what this proves is that it really is a brilliant book, as I obviously connected with it on quite an emotional level. I would definitely recommend reading it. Even if the story wasn’t as compelling, I would still recommend reading it for the incredible atmosphere and the skill with which Hannah Kent has created such a unique and memorable setting. For a debut novel, I think Burial Rites really is great. If Hannah Kent didn’t sound like such a sweet person, I think I’d probably have to hate her.