They said I must die. They said that I stole the breath from men, and now they must steal mine. – from Burial Rites -
Natan Ketilsson and Petur Jonsson were murdered in Iceland in 1828. Within a short period of time, three people were tried and convicted of the murders – two women (Agnes Magnusdottir and Sigridur Gudmundsdottir) and one man (Fridrik Sigurdsson). All three were condemned to die by beheading. Hannah Kent’s debut novel, Burial Rites, is the fictional story of Agnes immediately after her conviction and in the subsequent months leading up to her execution.
Kent supports her novel with real documents including letters from the District Commissioner, Bjorn Blondal, as well as poems written by the famous Poet-Rosa (who had two children by the murdered Natan although she was married to another man), and public notices. The use of these documents help establish the tone and historical significance of the story. The characters who people the novel are actual historical characters, including a priest who is sent to counsel Agnes before her death.
The novel opens immediately after the crime while Agnes is imprisoned in horrible conditions at Stora-Borg. Mysteriously, the District Commissioner contacts a local farmer and demands that he take Agnes in to his home to live until her execution. The family is understandably discontent about this prospect, but when Agnes arrives she is not the vicious predator they have expected. Before long, Agnes develops relationships with Margret (the farmer’s wife) and her two daughters Steina and Lauga, and facts about the murder come under question as Agnes gradually reveals her story about what happened.
Burial Rites is a haunting portrayal of a woman who has been disenfranchised for her entire life having been raised by various families after her mother abandoned her. Agnes’s work as a servant leaves her with no real rights. She is dependent on the kindness of others, and is powerless in the face of a paternalistic and class-driven society.
Kent writes beautifully with regard to place – setting the reader firmly in the cold and unforgiving land of Iceland in the middle of the nineteenth century.
The book is not without its faults. At times the story drags a bit and Kent seems to lose her focus by moving between narrators. I was most captivated by the voice of Agnes, who at first appears not only guilty, but cold and distant. Kent does an admirable job of developing Agnes’s character, but falls just short of making her fully empathetic through much of the novel.
Despite these minor criticisms, I did enjoy the book and felt it captured the plight of poor woman living during this time in history. In writing Burial Rites, Kent has given a voice to a woman who found herself facing the death penalty for a crime she may or may not have committed.
In October 2013, it was announced that Jennifer Lawrence is expected to play Agnes Magnúsdóttir in the film of Burial Rites based on the novel. There is no information yet regarding its release date.
Readers who enjoy well written historical fiction and those who have an interest in women’s rights, will find Burial Rites a fascinating read.
FTC Disclosure: I received this book from the publisher for review on my blog.