REVIEW: Burial Rites

Oh my god this book is good. Go buy, borrow or steal it and read it immediately (actually don’t steal it, stealing is bad and wrong).

I could leave it there, but I won’t obviously. It wouldn’t make for a very good blog post and this book deserves so much more than a one-liner.

Burial Rites was the debut novel of Hannah Kent, an Australian author who created it from the thesis for her PhD in Creative Writing.

First published in 2013, it tells the story of Agnes Magnusdottir, the last person to be executed in Iceland.

Kent came across the story while living in Iceland as an exchange student and became fascinated with it.

And, while this is a work of fiction, many of the details in this novel are true.

Kent spent years gathering evidence on this case and drew on the documents, letters and archives available as well as census reports and parish records. She visited many of the places and spoke to Icelanders about the case. She also looked at reports of foreign travellers from the time and other books about the case.

But she used creative licence to fill in the gaps and tell a story of Agnes which paints a slightly different picture of her than the stories that label her simply an evil murderer.

In Northern Iceland in March 1828, Natan Ketilsson and Petur Jonsson, were murdered on Ketilsson’s farm. Agnes Magnusdottir, Sigridur Gudmundsdottir and Fridrik Sigurdsson were tried and convicted of their murder and sentenced to death – although Sigridur’s sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment.

Agnes and Sigridur were servants at the farm. Fridrik was a neighbour.

While appeals and confirmation of the sentence and punishment were awaited from Denmark, the three were held in custody. For much of 1829 the condemned were sent separately to live in farmsteads with families.

All this is true. As is the fact that Fridrik and Agnes were executed on January 12 1830 and Sigridur was sent to a textiles prison in Copenhagen where she later died.

What Kent does brilliantly is take all those facts and create a picture of Agnes that is different from the legend. A picture of a woman who has grown up in poverty, worked in farmsteads since she was a small child and who might not be the murdering monster she is usually portrayed as.

She weaves an atmosphere of the stunning but harsh Icelandic landscape and the loneliness of isolation – especially in the claustrophobia of dark Icelandic winters.

If you have ever been to Iceland you will know how staggeringly beautiful it is, but also how empty it can feel in the countryside.

Imagine living there in the 1820s and 30s without the luxury of easy methods of communication and where the lifestyle was harsh and the winters harsher.

Imagine being the family that is forced to house a convicted killer in their home with their children until she is executed.

Imagine having witness the decapitation of the two criminals – or having the swing the axe.

Imagine Agnes was not, in fact, guilty as charged.

Kent describes this book as her ‘dark love letter to Iceland’. It is a haunting novel, beautiful in its description of Iceland and emotional in its portrayal of the characters involved. Depicting lives of isolated poverty nearly two centuries ago, it is gripping, moving and horrifying at the same time.

What an incredible debut novel.

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