Burial Rites - Hannah Kent

“Haunting” is the best word to describe this début novel by Hannah Kent. Set in the nineteenth century Iceland, the novel deals with matter of perception: how do you see yourself and how others see you. The novel also gently introduces the reader to the historical Iceland. 

 

Agnes Magnúsdóttir - central character of the story - is condemned to death for the brutal murder of two men. She is placed under the custody to live out her last days with a farming family in the north of Iceland. At first, the family is horrified and outraged at the prospect of having a murderess under their roof, but come to accept it as a necessary evil and duty to the government. Only the young Assistant Reverend, Tóti Jónsson, is willing to spend time listening to Agnes’s story in hope of bringing her closer to God. As the year progresses and the necessity and needs of everyday life force the family to work harder together, they begin to discover a different side to Agnes that is not shared in people’s gossips and assumptions about the woman. 

 

The novel is inspired by the true life events. Every chapter begins with a related to the event historic evidence or correspondence of the persons involved. You can sense the depth of research that the author has done to convey the authenticity of the story. I appreciated that whilst reading the book. When I, driven by curiosity, started looking on-line about the events set in the book, I discovered contradictory views to the one Kent presents in her novel. However, in the afterword Kent shares that her goal was not to prove whether Agnes was guilty or not. Her concern was that many women at the time ‘were unable to author their public identity’, and any woman who dared to step outside the lines of the accepted standards were seen as suspicious (pp.350-351). Kent’s interest to tell the story of Agnes was to represent the ambiguity and humanity of the woman and leave the judging to the reader.