Monday, February 5, 2018

Review of Burial Rites by Hannah Kent (Picador, 2013)

Northern Iceland, 1829. Agnes Magnúsdóttir has been sentenced to death for her part in the murder of two men, one of whom was her master and lover. After months in a local holding the district commissioner sends her to an isolated farm to await execution. The family are mortified to have a murderer amongst them, but rather than keep her under lock and key they put her to work in the house and farm. The landscape and weather are harsh and escape would lead to nowhere except death. Agnes asks for Tóti, a local trainee priest, to be her spiritual guardian and gradually tells him, and her host family, the story of her life and the death of her master.

In 1829 Agnes Magnúsdóttir was the last woman to be formally executed in Iceland, her head lopped off by an axe wielded by the brother of the man she was accused of murdering. A range of stories still circulate about the case, many portraying Agnes as a monster. Hannah Kent takes a different tack providing an in-depth and sympathetic character study of Agnes from the time she is sent as a prisoner to a local farm to the time of her execution. The story is somewhat of an existential tale, in part examining the mind and actions of a person awaiting death, in part charting the path that led to this fate. Kent uses both a first person perspective of Agnes and a third person general narrative to chart her last few months and the crime for which she has been convicted. In the main this is done through reminiscences, discussions with her priest, and interactions with the family charged with housing her until she is taken to the site of execution. In combination with some wonderfully evocative and lyrical prose, a strong sense of place and time, the result is a compelling, thoughtful-provoking read in which the nuances and circumstances of the crime are laid bare. In particular, the characterisation and social relations between Agnes, her priest, and the farm household are beautifully realised. While the telling drags a little in the middle, as a whole the tale is a first rate literary piece of crime fiction.

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