Burial Rites by Hannah Kent
I won this book in a Goodreads Giveaway.
I am a sucker for historical fiction done well, and this is written remarkably well.
Burial Rites is a fictionalization of the last year of Agnes Magnusdottir, the last woman executed in Iceland in 1830. Over the last year of her life, Agnes was placed with a family in lieu of prison and assigned a priest to help her come to terms with her death sentence. The novel imagines the interactions between Agnes and the family and her priest.
Each chapter begins with translated case documents up to and including the record of her beheading and burial in unconsecrated ground. While these documents are factual inasmuchas they tell the government’s side of the case, they leave a lot of room to imagine Agnes’s side of the murders of Natan Ketilsson and Petur Jonsson. This is where Hannah Kent has applied her creative license in imagining this last year of Agnes’s life.
The story captures Agnes’s difficult life from her childhood. Born a bastard and abandoned at an early age by a mother seemingly incapable of providing a stable life for her children, Agnes works hard to overcome the associated stigma and become a young woman capable of supporting herself. Kent is able to humanize this murderer, a difficult task even in the best of circumstances, and allows readers to see the other side of the story that the courts either refused to see or didn’t care to acknowledge.
Through Agnes’s social and literal isolation, the story evokes the isolation of Iceland itself, geographically and socially. The social mores operating in the early 1800s in Iceland were truly not much different from those in other parts of the European and American world at the same time, but the geographic isolation of Iceland emphasizes the social isolation experienced by those marginalized by that social system. Kent includes an interview at the end of the novel that I greatly appreciated for its assistance in helping me understand a culture I knew virtually nothing about prior to reading this novel.
I highly recommend Burial Rites. I truly appreciate burial rites for introducing me to a new culture and a strong woman whose side of the story may have been ignored by history. I appreciate that Kent looked more deeply into this intriguing case. And, I appreciate the care Kent has taken in crafting a remarkable piece of historical fiction.
Kent, Hannah. Burial Rites. Back Bay Books,2013.
(Published originally on wellbreadwoman.blogspot.com)