Burial Rites by Hannah Kent
Reviewed by Raul
To this day, the story of Agnes Magnusdottir is known to Icelanders. Agnes is the last person executed in Iceland for murder. While there is no question as to her involvement in the killing, readers of Hannah Kent’s new novel Burial Rites pick up that there may be more to the story. Kent does a fantastic job of including documents from the trial that give a clearer picture of what life and justice was like on this remote island in the late 19th century. What is missing from the documents is Agnes’ own statement.
Agnes has to face her fate and here is where Kent’s skill as an author shines. Agnes is not initially accepted by the family she has been placed with to wait her execution ( apparently, Iceland did not have prisons as we know them ), and they fear her. With the horrible weather coming, the family must prepare to survive the winter. It’s the mother, Margaret, who brings Agnes into the fold of her family, for having been a servant, Agnes understands what needs be done around the house. This initial connection to the family allows Agnes to open up to them. In spending time helping the family get the household ready, their fear gradually fades and Agnes becomes human where she was first seen as a “monster.”
What she tells Margaret makes the family more sympathetic, though her fate is already sealed. She mentions a childhood that in the best of circumstances could be described as harrowing, and describes her initial attraction to Natan, the man who was murdered. There are always two stories involved in a murder: the victim’s and the assailant’s. In the novel, we get a very logical and astute description of one plausible explanation for what happened, and we are left deeply affected at what could easily be a miscarriage of justice. That is the magic of good fiction: we are lost in Agnes’ paean against her life ending, that she has been misjudged – that she is not a killer.
We are so far removed in our modern day from that execution, but we still share the same humanity. We empathize with Margaret in her initial unwillingness to accept Agnes into her household and are elated when she defends her charge and listens to her side of the story. The daughters are wary of the prisoner, but overcome their feelings enough to accompany Agnes to her death. Hannah Kent has centered an important theme on an ambiguous main character and pulled it off. Poetic in many ways and haunting in its evocation of landscape and story, Burial Rites will pull you in and make you rethink the facts in the case.