I really enjoyed Burial Rites, Hannah Kent’s historical fiction based on the final months of Agnes Magnusdottir’s life. Agnes was the last woman to be executed for murder in Iceland and Kent’s work is really, really good. It’s gripping, heart-wrenching in some places and beautifully descriptive.
It’s Iceland, 1829, and Agnes Magnusdottir is awaiting the date of her execution. Found guilty of murder, she wastes away in a terrible prison. But as the winter draws to a close, she is moved back into the north of Iceland, to a place she lived and worked in as a young woman, to live with the family of a District Officer. During this time, Agnes makes a request of a young assistant reverend, Toti. He thinks his duty is to help her immortal soul find God and peace before her execution, but instead he finds that he just needs to listen to her story, to not judge, and therefore understand the part Agnes played in the murder of two men and help her come to peace with it herself.
I really enjoyed this book; it was highly readable, had a beautiful pacing and exquisite imagery. Kent can certainly turn a phrase nicely, and the book is vivid and immersive. It switches between the third person for the main book, and first person for Agnes’ parts, which works really well. The book follows the legend of Agnes, but gets inside her head to present her humanely, and subtly as a victim of circumstance and poor management of the case.
The book is plot driven, so I found the changes in character were very subtle, but effective, and the ending of the book was predetermined based on the historical aspect of the novel. However that didn’t stop me from secretly hoping Agnes would escape, be pardoned, or run away with Toti.
Hannah Kent is a very talented Aussie writer and Burial Rites is her debut novel. She is currently working on her PhD at Flinder’s University. Burial Rites is incredibly well researched and contains snippets of historical records, poetry and letters that really round out the novel.