This review first appeared on the Wheeler Centre for Books, Writing, Ideas website: Discover the 21 Shortlisted Books for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards 2014.
Burial Rites is based on the true story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last woman to be executed in Iceland. Beheaded, no less. But knowing the main character’s fate does not diminish the suspense in this stunning debut novel by Hannah Kent. Exquisitely crafted, intriguing and moving, Burial Rites is a treasure to be admired and cherished.
The story opens in 1829 when Agnes Magnúsdóttir is sent to wait out the time leading up to her execution at the farm of the District Officer and his family in the northern village of Kornsá. There is no risk of escape in this place where winter ‘comes like a punch in the dark’, where ‘blizzards howl like the widows of fishermen and the wind blisters the skin off your face.’
Agnes knows the terrain only too well, having been born nearby to an unwed mother, fostered out, surrendered as a pauper and put to work as a servant. The ease with which she slips into the routine of farm life at Kornsá and her worth as an extra pair of hands temper the resentment of her host family.
At her request, Agnes is visited by the assistant reverend Thorvardur Jónsson, known as Tóti, who defies the District Commissioner’s orders to ‘apply the Lord’s word to her as a whip to a hard-mouthed horse’. Instead, Tóti listens as Agnes knits socks and unravels her story.
Her short life of ‘three and thirty winters’ is characterised by abject poverty, tragedy, heartbreak and a passion for a healer called Natan, which may or may not have turned deadly.
Each conversation between Agnes and Tóti, told in the third person, is later amplified by Agnes in the first person. She describes her relationship with Natan to Tóti as a rare and precious friendship. But the reader knows better:
The weight of his fingers on mine, like a bird landing on a branch. It was the drop of the match. I did not see that we were surrounded by tinder until I felt it burst into flames.
Kent’s vivid evocation of the northern Icelandic landscape is so convincing, it made me shiver. Her prose sparkles, even when the imagery is dark and menacing. Mountain grasses fade to ‘the colour of smoked meat’. The river is a ‘dark intestine’. Mist hovers in ‘ghostly wreaths’ and clouds are ‘crouched too close to the ground’.
Even more startling are the interiors, the homes of villagers who attempt to eke out a living in this unforgiving environment. In the farmhouse at Kornsá, dried fish skins substitute for glass in the windows. Wood panelling has been stripped from the walls and sold to repay debts, leaving dead grass to ‘hang from the ceiling like unwashed hair’.
For the villagers, theirs is a muddy, bloody, icy world where the bones of those who go missing in a snowstorm might lie undetected for years. Women die in childbirth alongside their undernourished babies; and should they die in winter, when the ground is too frozen for grave digging, their bodies might remain for months in storage among sacks of salt and dried fish.
How people in nineteenth century Iceland dressed, spoke and slaughtered their food, what they ate and drank, how they treated ailments and what they believed to be signs of the Devil are all revealed. Yet Burial Rites contains not a sentence of exposition, these rich details woven seamlessly into the story.
But the book’s triumph is the character of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, who despite grief and hardship, remains desperate to live. ‘I am still warm,’ she laments after her execution date has been set, ‘my blood still howls in my veins like the wind itself.’
Even after I finished reading Burial Rites, I felt Agnes linger, as though she was sitting in the room with me, knitting her socks, telling her devastating stories.
Towards the end of the novel, Agnes mourns herself as lost:
….silence will claim you, suck your life down into its black waters and churn out stars that might remember you, but if they do, they will not say, and if no one will say your name you are forgotten I am forgotten.
I was reminded of what Doris Lessing said in her Nobel Prize winning speech: ‘It is our stories that will recreate us, when we are torn, hurt, even destroyed.’
She may have been the last woman executed in Iceland, but Kent has succeeded in recreating Agnes Magnúsdóttir through her stories. And we are all the richer for it.
Burial Rites by Hannah Kent (2013) is published by Pan Macmillan Australia.