Set in Iceland in 1829, Burial Rites by Hannah Kent offers a fictional retelling of Agnes Magúsdóttir’s story after she was condemned to death following the murder of Natan Ketilsson and Pétur Jónsson. With no prisons in Iceland, Agnes is sent to live with the District Commissioner and his wife and daughters. Burial Rites charts Agnes’ time in their care, where her heartbreaking story begins to emerge.
Burial Rites is a beautifully written novel and some of Kent’s descriptions demand to be lingered over and read again. Not only do they help to evoke the atmosphere but they simply create beautiful descriptions – “Bruises, blossoming like star clusters under the skin, black and yellow smoke trapped under the membrane” – is one example that has stuck with me since reading. Kent also brilliantly evokes the stark landscape of Iceland with the bitter wind, the driving snow, the harsh living conditions all vividly created. She has complete control over her words and their effect, creating a powerful and atmospheric novel. Her precise and taut prose makes it feel as if no word has been wasted, and the time frame of the novel – Agnes’ move to Kornsá until her execution – keeps the novel tight throughout.
The novel is well-crafted, with Kent using alternating chapters to offer the perspectives of Agnes, the family who is forced to take her in, and the priest who is given the task of preparing her for death. Not only do we see Agnes’ past and the events leading up to the murders through these alternating chapters, but we hear her story and see how she felt. What worked most powerfully was the fact that we also see how she affected those surrounding her in the lead up to her execution, and subsequently the reader. At the beginning of the book we are in the same position as everyone else, only knowing Agnes by name, what she is said to have done, and an image of a calculating murderer. Delaying our meeting with Agnes works well to add to the atmosphere and our changing perceptions of her.
We hear parts of Agnes’ story from the woman herself throughout the novel as she speaks to the priest, and these work well to give us glimpses of the woman beneath her identity as murderer yet they still retain some ambiguity. Flashbacks are also used towards the end but these didn’t seem to work as well as the rest of the novel. Moving from hearing very little of her story to large flashbacks felt a little forced, as if Kent was determined for us to hear Agnes’ story. They don’t feel completely implausible – Agnes doesn’t know when she’s going to die so she feels compelled to tell her story to people she’s formed attachments to – but I would have preferred some ambiguity left in the story. Yet, it did feel satisfying to find out her story as too much ambiguity may have led to a frustrating conclusion.
Based on real events, Kent’s novel gives an engaging and compelling alternative representation of Agnes Magúsdóttir, the last person to be executed in Iceland. Hannah Kent heard of her story when she was on an exchange trip in the country and it’s clear throughout the novel that Kent has completely immersed herself in the Icelandic culture of the period and has deeply researched any topics covered in the novel. Everything feels completely real and placed firmly in reality. In fact, translations of real documents produced at the time of Agnes’ execution are provided at the beginning of each chapter and these work to bring home the fact that this woman was real and what Kent describes could have been her story. It reminds us that, while the book is a work of fiction, the people in it are very much real.
Kent has weaved a beautifully written fictional account of Agnes Magúsdóttir. Powerful and moving, Burial Rites is an impressive debut. I can’t wait to see further work from Hannah Kent.
Have you read Burial Rites? What did you think?