Agnes Magnúsdóttir was the last person to be sentenced to death for a crime in Iceland. She died by beheading in 1830. In Burial Rites, Hannah Kent offers a fictional idea of what Agnes’ last months might have been like, as well as what the truth may have been surrounding the murder for which Agnes was convicted. The basic outline of the plot and the characters are true but the details have been filled in by Kent and she has done a fine job.
The story begins after Agnes has been sentenced to beheading and is moved from imprisonment to stay with a family. The death sentence looms over her but a date has not been set so she doesn’t know how long she has left. The family – Jon and Margret and their two daughters – don’t want a murderess in their home but are given no choice. Agnes is put to work just as their other servants are and, gradually, the family becomes used to her presence. Along with this is the priest responsible for helping Agnes prepare for death. This is a young assistant reverend called Toti, who Agnes has requested particularly. He is unsure and unprepared on how to help Agnes but she slowly begins to reveal her past to him.
The story alternates between a third person narrator, usually getting in closest to Toti, and a first person narration from Agnes herself. This way the reader becomes privy to some of the details of the story that only Agnes knows and that she doesn’t share with anyone else, even as she becomes more comfortable with both the family and Toti. It’s a somewhat awkward construct but an effective way for us to learn things that only Agnes knows. Agnes quickly becomes a sympathetic figure as she tells us of her rough and lonely childhood and then the relationships that brought her to death row.
One of the most interesting parts of this novel was simply the setting of 19th century Iceland. While I’ve read lots of books set in 19th century Europe, I’ve only read novels of modern day Iceland and this was vastly different from both. The details about life on the farm – how the family prepares for winter, how their house is constructed – were fascinating and obviously well-researched and Kent does a great job of bringing them into the story. They never feel tacked on but become important aspects of the plot. For example, the practise of everyone – servants, accused murderers, and daughters of the family, male and female – sleeping in one room together. This is hugely different from the norms of 19th century England and obviously changes how the characters interact and how certain information is discovered. Or smaller details like the extravagance of coffee or how a hostess will help a guest take off his shoes and coat. Kent weaves this details into the plot with great skill.
Even more impressive, Kent maintains a great deal of tension right to the end of the novel, even though, this being historically based, we know how the story ends. The slow reveal of truth and the developing relationships between the characters aid in this a lot. I look forward to reading more from Hannah Kent.