Burial Rites is the first book by Australian author Hannah Kent. It is based on the true story of Agnes Magnusdottir, who was sentenced to death in 1829 for her role in the brutal murder of two men in Iceland.
The first thing I wondered about when I picked up this book was why an Australian author would write a story about an old murder on the other side of the world, but the author’s page says she learned of the story while on a Rotary Club Exchange program to Iceland as a teenager. I expect that particular Australian Rotary Club were very pleased they selected Hannah from that year’s batch of applicants for their Exchange Program…
When the story starts, Agnes is a condemned prisoner waiting for the King of Denmark to approve the Icelandic District Commissioner’s findings; that she, along with another man and woman, was guilty of murdering two men and was to be executed for her role in the crimes. Without a suitable place to house Agnes until her death, the District Commissioner decides she is to stay at the home of the District Officer of Kornsa, Jon Jonsson.
Jon’s wife Margret and his daughters Lauga and Steina don’t want a condemned prisoner in their home, but are forced to comply. While Agnes is with them she works as their servant inside their home and on their farm. Reverend Toti, who she has asked to provide her with spiritual guidance, visits regularly. Toti, although young and inexperienced, finds that Agnes does better telling him her story than when he tries to teach her, so along with the Jonsson family, Toti listens as Agnes tells him about her miserable childhood, how she became a servant on the farm of one of the murdered men and of the events which led to the murders.
Burial Rites takes the harshness of life in Iceland at that time for granted and while I was reading I felt grateful to live in a different time and a warmer place. The descriptions of the family and servants all sleeping and living together in an earthen croft were unappealing. The smells must have been horrible and the lack of privacy impossible. While I expected the story to feature the wonder of the Northern Lights I was surprised to find the descriptions of the landscape to be so beautiful. I was also surprised to learn that Christianity was so dominant in Iceland at the time.
I was left wondering if the real Agnes Magnusdottir was guilty of the murders or not. In real life, Agnes was the last person in Iceland to be executed. I pitied the character Agnes, who was portrayed in Burial Rites as being clever and attractive. Not surprisingly though, the story is sad and does not leave the reader with hope for a better future for any of the characters.
The story is extraordinarily well written, especially so for a debut novel from a 28-year old author. Hannah Kent has followed up on Burial Rites with The Good People, which I expect to read later this year.