Hannah Kent discovered the story of Agnes Magnusdottir, the last woman to be executed for murder in Iceland, during a year as an exchange student, and Burial Rites is the result of Kent’s desire to give the condemned woman a voice. Kent’s novel featured alongside those of Man Booker longlistees Donal Ryan and NoViolet Buluwayo on the Guardian First Book award shortlist, and is now on the Bailey’s Prize longlist.
It’s a dark novel, filled with foreboding and misery. Agnes is forced to await her execution in a farm in Kornsa, much to the annoyance of the resident family. The living is hard and the accommodation is sparse. Agnes, however, is an experienced servant. She works effectively and unstintingly, and sympathy slowly builds between Agnes and Margret, the mistress. Regular visits from a young parson, entrusted with the prisoner’s spiritual preparation for death, provide a framework for the gradual relation of Agnes’ backstory and eventual confession.
This is a brutal, unrelenting novel in which the stark landscape mirrors the plot and characters. The historical research is impeccable and the draw Kent felt towards the historical Agnes is palpable. Agnes’ first-person voice is interspersed with third-person narrative and with historical documents detailing, in particular, the official bureaucracy surrounding the execution, and together they create a sense of unremitting hopelessness as the days pass. For me, the strength of Burial Rites lies in its blending of character with landscape, and the strength of Agnes as a character lies in the peace she has made with that landscape. She can make healing jellies from lichen and prepare teas that ease a difficult birth; she can knit, and use a scythe, and her hopes and dreams are not of a new country, but of finding her own place within the snow and rocks and stones of her own.
However, I feel that Burial Rites is bound too tightly by the true story it tells. I would love to see Hannah Kent’s writing unfettered by a pre-determined plot, and her characterization unhampered by concern for the historical truth. There is a real sense of tension in the novel which is never fully exploited. Hannah Kent has given her Agnes a clear, distinctive voice; it’s an achievement to be proud of, and I am eager to see what Kent will write now that she has set herself free.