I spent a few days right before Christmas in rural northern Iceland. The landscape was stark and unforgiving, yet beautiful in a primal way. The weather, as one would expect, was more suited to penguins and polar bears than to people. The living conditions were primitive but we managed to stay moderately comfortable. We were “roughing it,” and the isolation made for an especially intense experience coping with both man and nature. It was a memorable journey that remains with me even now.
I should mention a couple of relevant facts. I spent my time in 1829 Iceland, and I did it by reading Hannah Kent’s powerful debut novel, Burial Rites. Kent’s story so utterly transported me to early 19th century Iceland that I found myself complaining to my wife that I had a chill I couldn’t seem to get rid of, even when I turned up the heat.
Burial Rites tells the story of Agnes Magnusdottir (daughter of Magnus), who has been convicted of murdering two men on an isolated farm on the northwest coast. The government in Reykjavik wants Agnes and her two co-defendants, Fridrik and Sigga, housed in the district where the crimes were committed and the trial took place until the Supreme Court in Copenhagen reviews the case and affirms the trial court’s judgment. They are sent to three separate farms to work until the day of execution.
District Commissioner Bjorn Blondal places Agnes with the family of District Officer Jon Jonsson, who own the farm known as Kornsa, despite the Jonssons’ fierce opposition to her presence in their home. It is clear that she has been brutally mistreated in her previous imprisonment at the Stora-Borg farm and by the men who have transported her by horse to Kornsa. Margret, the mistress of Kornsma, is stern and wary but not callous, and she provides Agnes with a bath, clean clothes, and food, thereby beginning her transformation from a silent, feral woman into just another servant on the farm.
The plot of Burial Rites alternates between Agnes’s slowly evolving life at Kornsma and flashbacks to her life before the murders. As she is treated in a distant but civil manner, Agnes begins to let go of some of her anger and develops a tentative relationship with Margret and her younger daughter, Steina. Who is she, where did she come from, what kind of life has she led, and what caused her to brutally murder farmer and herbalist Natan Ketilsson and his friend Petur Jonsson at Ketilsson’s coastal farm, Illugastadir, and then set fire to the farmhouse? Did she even murder them, or has she been false accused and wrongly convicted?
We learn the answers to these and many other questions through her conversations with Assistant Reverend Thorvardur Jonsson (known as “Toti”). Toti is surprised by Blondal’s request to visit Agnes and counsel her, as he does not believe he knows her, but it seems she has requested him personally to provide the court-mandated spiritual guidance in preparation for her looming death.
As one would expect, Agnes’s story is far more complicated and compelling than the one presented at her trial and the reputation she has among her fellow Icelanders, who think of her as a “murderess” or even a witch. What I found most intriguing was the powerful effect that Agnes has on those around her: first, because as a murderer she frightens everyone; then, as she works on the farm and the months pass, her actions begin to speak louder than the “facts” and rumors about her and cause others to reconsider their opinion of her. Perhaps she is not what she is said to be, after all.
Burial Rites is a spellbinding murder-mystery, a moving character study, and an inspired depiction of a distant time and place unknown to virtually everyone. As a teenager, Hannah Kent traveled from her home in Adelaide, Australia to Iceland on a Rotary Exchange, and the experience, during which she learned the story of the real Agnes, profoundly affected her. This novel has been percolating inside her for a decade. Kent is the co-founder and editor of the Australian literary journal Kill Your Darlings and is working on her PhD at Flinders University in Adelaide.
As Madeline Miller, author of the Orange Award-winning The Song of Achilles, notes on the back cover, [“Burial Rites is] so gripping I wanted to rush through the pages, but so beautifully written I wanted to linger over every sentence.” I gave in to the pull of the narrative and read it quickly, but I noted the impressive, literary quality of Kent’s writing and intend to re-read the parts of the novel that I flagged.
Burial Rites is an ideal read for those long, cold winter nights. But grab an extra blanket before you settle in to read it. It will chill you as you’re reading and haunt you when you’re finished.