‘Burial Rites’ by Hannah Kent is a novel based on the true story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir who was convicted of murder and was the last woman to be executed in Iceland in 1830 at the age of 33. Sentenced to death along with Fridrik Sigurdsson and Sigrídur Sigga Gudmundsdóttir for killing Natan Ketilsson and his neighbour, Agnes is sent to live with District Officer Jón Jónsson, his wife Margrét and their daughters Steina and Lauga while she awaits execution. However, it is gradually revealed that her story is more complex than the original version of events presented in court.
Kent first heard the tale of Agnes’s life and death as a teenager while on a cultural exchange trip in Iceland. Based on her passionate reimagining of events, it is easy to see why she was so fascinated by this remarkable story. Kent has thoroughly researched Agnes’s life but doesn’t allow the story to be swamped by her extensive archive research. The story is tensely written with striking, often unusual imagery and it is the combination of a truly unique and original story and the desolate Icelandic landscape which make ‘Burial Rites’ so darkly atmospheric.
Although we know her fate from the outset, Kent’s creative reimagining of what happened to Agnes and how other characters react to her presence is ultimately what drives the story. However, I did find it slightly puzzling that Kent stated in the Author’s Note that she set out to offer a more “ambiguous portrayal” of Agnes’s character. Agnes is certainly complex but I found Kent’s interpretation of events to be almost entirely sympathetic towards her. While I enjoyed and admired many aspects of ‘Burial Rites’, I don’t think Kent fully succeeded in presenting Agnes as a vague and questionable character who the reader might have reason to be suspicious of.
Nevertheless, ‘Burial Rites’ is a confidently written novel and has been one of the most talked-about debuts of 2013. It is the perfect book to curl up with on a cold wintry day and I am sure it would be equally useful to help the reader cool down during a heatwave. Hannah Kent is definitely one to watch in the future and I am intrigued by what she will write next.