Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

“They said I must die. They said that I stole the breath from men, and now they must steal mine. …Sometimes I think I see it again, the arm, burning in the dark. Sometimes I can feel the ache of winter in my lungs, and I think I see the flames mirrored in the ocean, the water so strange, so flickered with light. …I looked back to watch the fire, and if I lick my skin I can still taste the salt. The smoke.”

These are the imagined words of Agnes Magnúsdóttir who was convicted of killing two men, Natan Ketilsson and Pétur Jónsson between the 13th and 14th of March in 1828 at Illugastadir, Iceland. Two other persons stood accused of the same crime, Fridrik Sigurdsson  and Sigrídur Gudmundsdóttir. They were found guilty in the District Court and the sentences were upheld by the Land Court in Reykjavík and remained in custody while the case was tried in Copenhagen’s Supreme Court where the original judgment was expected to stand.

Hannah Kent informs readers in the Author’s Note at the end of the book that her Burial Rites“interpretation of the Illugastadir murders and executions is informed by many years of research, during which I have accessed ministerial records, parish archives, censuses, local histories and publications, and have spoken with many Icelanders. While some historical characters have been invented, omitted, or had their names altered out of necessity, most … are taken from historical records.” There is a fascinating Program Transcript here which tells more of Hannah’s search for Agnes.

“Many known and established facts about Agnes’s life and the murders have been reproduced in this novel, and events have either been drawn directly from the record, or are the result of speculation; they are fictional likelihoods.The family at the farm of Kornsá did hold Agnes in custody after she was held at Stóra-Borg, and Agnes chose Assistant Reverend (Thorvardur) …Jónsson to act as her priest in her last days.”

When Agnes was brought from Stóra-Borg to Kornsá, the Mistress there ” was unpre-pared for the filth and wretchedness of the woman’s appearance. The criminal wore what seemed to be a servant’s common working dress of roughly woven wool, but one so badly stained and caked with dirt that the original blue dye was barely discernible under the brown grease spread across the neckline and arms. A thick weight of dried mud pulled the fabric awkwardly from the woman’s body. Her faded bluestockings were soaked through, sunk about the ankles, and one was torn, exposing a slice of pale skin. Her shoes, of sealskin, it seemed, had split at the seam, but were so covered in mud it was impossible to see how damaged they were. Her hair was uncovered by a cap and matted with grease. It hung in two dark braids down her back. Several strands had come loose and fell limply about the woman’s neck. She looked as if she had been dragged from Stóra-Borg, Margrét thought.”

When asked to raise her head, “Margrét winced at the smear of dried blood across the woman’s mouth, and the grime that lay in streaks across her forehead. There was a yellow bruise that spread from her chin down to the side of he neck. Agnes’s eyes flickered from the ground to Margrét’s own, and she felt unnerved by their intensity, their color made lighter and sharper by the dirt on her face.
“This woman has been beaten.” The officer searched Margrét’s face for amusement, and, finding none, lowered his eyes. ”

And so begins Agnes’s stay with Margrét and her daughters Lauga and Steina (aged 20 and 21 years). Margrét’s husband Jon is a District Officer under the supervision of the District Commissioner, Bjorn Blöndal. There are no detention centres or prisons in Iceland at this time and so the District Commissioner was responsible for finding suitable accommodation for prisoners who were not sent on to Copenhagen for execution. It had been decided to keep the prisoners in Iceland and to execute them locally to give a message to the populace. This is why Margrét has Agnes in her home.

The priest has been assigned because Agnes requested him. She had met him when she was very very young and he had helped her get across a river. He did not remember her at first but after some time he and Agnes establish a relationship within which Agnes is able to talk about what happened to her at Natan’s farm and what came about in mid-March 1828. Her story is compelling and the reader is drawn into it along with the Reverend and Margrét and even Lauga and Steina. Agnes works hard at a variety of tasks including both household and farm tasks and also shares her knowledge of herbal preparations. She is skilled and useful and earns the trust of the family even the skeptical Jon. She becomes far more to Margrét than another pair of hands and the Reverend  (Tóti) learns more from Agnes than she learns from him.North Iceland farm in winter

The winter isolation in the country is a character in the novel and inserts itself into the character of the people. It plays a major part in the murders and in the lives of both the victims and the perpetrators. While reading one cannot help but try to imagine what life would have been like for Hannah, for Margrét, for Jon, for Tóti, and/or for a number of other characters including the servants and even the executioner. (Northern exposure … an isolated farm near Iceland’s north coast. Photograph: Patrick Dieudonne/Robert Harding.)

To the Reverend, Agnes eventually reveals some of her relationship to Natan but she reveals more to the reader. “How can I truly recall the first moment of meeting him, when the hand I felt press my own was merely a hand? It is impossible to think of Natan as the stranger he was, once, to me. …I cannot remember not knowing Natan. I cannot think of what it was not to love him. To look at him and realize I had found what I had not known I was hungering for. A hunger so deep, so capable of driving me into the night, that it terrified me.”

This is an exceptional reading experience. Hannah Kent says that the book “has been written to supply a more ambiguous portrayal of this woman.” She has most certainly accomplished her goal.


One thought on “Burial Rites by Hannah Kent”

  1. I thought she did a terrific job of this, and I was really glad that I hadn’t known/heard anything about the case in advance, so the story really felt fresh, despite its historical roots. It reminded me a great deal of Alias Grace, but with a very different feel in terms of setting and time period. As you’ve said, “exceptional”: I was pleased to see it nominated for the Women’s Fiction Prize this year.

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