Burial Rites is based on the almost mythic Icelandic true story of 34-year-old Agnes Magnusdottir, the last woman beheaded in public in Iceland (in 1830). The author, Hannah Kent, was a teenaged Australian exchange student in Iceland when she first heard about the execution of Agnes, and became fascinated. She then spent many years visiting Iceland and researching the story of this woman through oral histories and government records.
The jacket copy for this book is a little misleading: “Charged with the brutal murder of two men, Agnes Magnusdottir has been moved to her homeland’s farthest reaches, to an isolated farm in northern Iceland, to await execution.” From this it sounds like the murders were committed in a more populated part of Iceland, and that Agnes was moved to a remote area that was unknown to her. In fact, the murders happened in an even more isolated, even more northern part of Iceland. There were no jails in this part of the country, so Agnes was housed in the homes of district officials. After sentencing, she was in fact moved to the valley in which she had grown up, to a farm where she had worked as housemaid for a previous family.
The story is told through several points of view: Agnes tells us her memories in first person; the reactions of the people around her are in third person; and interspersed throughout the novel are government documents and poems written about, to, and from Agnes. I found the novel full of suspense from the beginning: did Agnes really commit these murders? How will the family react to her being housed with them? Why did Agnes request a young priest who does not know her to help her prepare for the execution? What is Agnes really like? What was her relationship to the murdered men? These answers are revealed slowly, painting a fascinating and complex picture of the character and actions of Agnes. Almost every main character who encounters Agnes changes as a result.
In addition to the nuanced characters, the novel is also compelling for its detailed descriptions of the scenery and life of northern Iceland in the early 1800’s: the endless work, the harsh weather, and the objects of daily life. A map of the region and a pronunciation guide are helpful. I also listened to part of the audiobook for the pronunciation of names and places. The writing style is simple, direct, and spare, yet full of emotion.