‘They said I must die. They said that I stole the breath from men, and now they must steal mine. I imagine, then, that we are all candle flames, greasy-bright, fluttering in the darkness and the howl of the wind, and in the stillness of the room I hear footsteps, awful coming footsteps, coming to blow me out and send my life up away from me in a grey wreath of smoke’.
Burial Rites, Hannah Kent, Pg.1
Never before have I been more hooked by a book, just from its first sentence, as I was with Hannah Kent’s debut novel, Burial Rites. This beautifully written and gripping story tells the hauntingly fictionalised account of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last person to be executed in Iceland. The year is 1829 and she, along with two others, has been convicted for murder. Two men – Natan Ketilsson and Pétur Jónsson – were found in the burning remains of Natan’s farm at Illugastadir and, on closer inspection, were found to suffer brutally inflicted wounds to their upper bodies. As there are no prisons in Northern Iceland, a District Officer and his family are, unwillingly, forced to take in the prisoner and an Assistant Reverend – Tóti – has been tasked with absolving her before the fated execution date.
What makes Burial Rites such a gripping and intriguing read is that we hear Agnes’s story – from her sad beginnings to her sorry end – from different perspectives. We first view her from the family at Kornsá farm, who have the job of looking after Agnes before her execution: ‘Agnes slowly raised her head. Margrét winced at the smear of dried blood across the woman’s mouth, and the grime that lay in streaks across her forehead. There was a yellow bruise that spread from her chin down to the side of her neck’ (pg.45). She looks almost inhuman – a monster. Yet, as the story progresses we hear about her life through flashbacks, her own words to Tóti and dreams she has, as well as snatches of gossip from the local community.
‘Perhaps it is a shame that I have vowed to keep my past locked up within me. At Hvammur, during the trial, they plucked at my words like birds. Dreadful birds, dressed in red with breasts of silver buttons, and cocked heads and sharp mouths, looking for guilt like berries on a bush. They did not let me say what happened in my own way, but took my memories of Illugastadir, of Natan, and wrought them into something sinister; they wrested my statement of that night and made me seem malevolent. Everything I said was taken from me and altered until the story wasn’t my own’.
Burial Rites, Hannah Kent, Pg.100
At first I was reluctant to be drawn into Agnes’s narrative, particularly as she consciously strives not to tell Tóti the whole truth. But I couldn’t help but be seduced by the language. When the narrative switches to Agnes’s voice, we are confronted with wonderful metaphors that sound almost poetic. She certainly comes across as a victim – a victim of her sex, her age and her class.
‘I could have been a pauper; I could have been their servant, until those words! Sigga! Illugastadir! They anchor me to a memory that snatches the breath out of me. They are the magic words, the curse that turns me into a monster, and now I am Agnes of Illugastadir, Agnes of the fire, Agnes of the dead bodies with the blood, not burnt, still clinging to the clothes I made for him. They will free Sigga but they will not free me because I am Agnes – bloody, knowing Agnes. And I am so scared, I thought it could work, I thought I could pretend, but I see it will not, I will never, I cannot escape this, I cannot escape’.
Burial Rites, Hannah Kent, Pg.128
Agnes is not the only one convicted of the Illugastadir murders – she is convicted along with the other servant-girl, Sigga, and a young man, Fridrik, who often helped out at the farm when Natan was away. However, only Agnes and Fridrik are condemned to die. It was common knowledge that Agnes moved to the isolated Illugastadir farm to work because she was the lover of Natan Ketilsson. Though, unlike Sigga, who is portrayed as a young and naive girl, Agnes is the older, more intelligent woman, eclipsed by this young beauty, and, therefore, likely to kill out of jealousy (or so her motives have often been described by others). Agnes knows how she will be viewed, as the ‘bloody, knowing Agnes’ (pg.128). She knows that beauty, age and naivety are not on her side and cannot possibly save her from the fate of death, like they can for Sigga. She wonders how the Revered will view her, if he knew the whole truth, ‘A curiosity. Cursed. How do men ever see women like me?’ (pg.101). I think that is one of the key questions in the novel. The fact that Agnes is naturally intelligent and perceptive and the fact that she wants more from life than what she has been given is found threatening by those in power – men. She has learnt the hard way that she can’t step outside of her role as a woman, and a poor one at that. Her only vice is to guard herself, choose her words carefully:
‘Perhaps [Tóti] is merely a gifted liar. God knows I have met enough men to know that once weaned off the breast they begin to lie through their teeth.
I will have to think of what to say to him’.
Burial Rites, Hannah Kent, Pg.101
I loved the fact that Hannah Kent chose to give a voice to a woman who has been written off as ‘an inhumane witch, stirring up murder’ for over a century. Regardless of whether the fictional Agnes is telling the whole truth (but then every truth is subjective), Kent gives Agnes the agency to be able to author her own story – something that would have been impossible for women of her station to do in the nineteenth century.
I also loved the vividness of the Icelandic landscape, which a number of other bloggers have also commented on. I have never been to Iceland before (though I would love to) but I felt the descriptions of the landscape were brought to life so intensely. I have heard and read, in a number of interviews with Hannah Kent, that Burial Rites is her ‘dark love letter’ to Iceland and I can truly believe this. The landscape and the weather, which can be inhospitable one day and life-giving the next, has such a strong presence in the novel. It is depicted beautifully.
‘How can I say what it was like to breathe again? I felt newborn. I staggered in the light of the world and took deep gulps of fresh sea air. It was late in the day: the wet mouth of the afternoon was full on my face. My soul blossomed in that brief moment as they led me out of doors. I fell, my skirts in the mud, and I turned my face upwards as if in prayer. I could have wept from the relief of light’.
Burial Rites, Hannah Kent, Pg.34
I am so glad that Burial Rites was shortlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction as I don’t think I would have picked it up otherwise. It is described by the Independent as ‘One of the best Scandinavian crime novels I’ve read’ on the back of the book and, as I am not much of a fan of crime novels, that would have been enough for me to put it back on the shelf. However, Burial Rites is about so much more than that. Kent explores the idea of truth and ambiguity, of factual truth and emotional truth and of self-representation and misrepresentation, amongst many others. Her writing is beautiful and poetic. I literally couldn’t put it down from the moment I opened it to the moment I finished reading it.