Sitting out in the Atlantic almost aloof from the rest of the continent at the northerly tip of Europe, is the island of Iceland. Despite what the name suggests, Ice is scarce compared to it’s neighbour Greenland. Another rarity in Iceland is Crime, according to a report by a global study on homicide published 2011 by the UN, Iceland’s homicide rate never went above 1.8 per 100,000 head of population annually over a ten year period between 1999-2009. Thus it took an Antipodean, to delve into the annals of Icelandic history to find a crime with an interesting tale. That’s this months book – Burial Rites by Hannah Kent (www.hannahkentauthor.com).
Iceland, 1828. A closed rural society governed from far-off Denmark. Two men are murdered on a remote farm and their bodies partially burnt. The shock vibrates throughout the whole country. An example must be made of the murderers. They must be executed. One of them is Agnes Magnusdottir, a 33-year-old maid-cum-farmhand.
There is no executioner or executioner’s axe in Iceland. A blacksmith is commissioned to make the axe. A farmer must be trained to carry out the beheadings. Meanwhile, Agnes is lodged with a crofter’s family (there are no prisons in Iceland, either) – a family who does not at all welcome the idea of having a murderess in their midst.
Based on these actual events, “Burial Rites” tells Agnes’ story.
Historically, Agnes Magnusdottir was the last woman to be executed in Iceland for the murder of her employer and lover,
Natan Ketilsson, and a farmhand, Petur Jonsson. The murders and the subsequent execution of Agnes and one of her co-accused, Fridrick Sigurdsson, are knitted into Icelandic history and folklore with Agnes generally being portrayed as “an inhumane witch, stirring up murder”. In writing this novel, Hannah Kent set out to “supply a more ambiguous portrayal of this woman”. In this she succeeds admirably.
Reconstructed from historical documents and re-envisaged, Hannah Kent’s Agnes was born the illegitimate daughter of a servant girl. At age six her mother left her with “A lie for a father. A head of dark hair. A kiss. A stone so that I might learn to understand the
birds and never be lonely”. At age eight her foster mother died in childbirth and she was “thrown on the mercy of the parish….a pauper. Left to the mercy of others whether they had any or no”. At fourteen, the confirmation records of the parish describe her as having “an excellent intellect” – an intellect that Agnes subsequently decries as being responsible for her predicament. “If I was young and simple-minded, do you think everyone would be pointing at me? No. They’d blame it on Fridrick ….But they see I have a head on my shoulders, and believe a thinking woman cannot be trusted. Believe there’s no room for innocence”.
Be that as it may, it was undoubtedly Agnes’ intelligence that attracted the attentions of Natan Ketilsson, the murder victim. Agnes fell in love when Ketilsson, a notorious non-conformist and freethinker, singled her out while visiting a farm where she worked because “he could not read me”. Having become lovers, Ketilsson asked Agnes to move to his farm as a housekeeper. On her arrival, however, she realized that another servant girl, 15-year-old Sigga, was already installed as housekeeper – and in Nathan’s bed! Was it rage and jealousy at this that drove her to stab Ketilsson when the opportunity presented itself? Or, as she insisted, was it Fridrick that killed him and forced her (and Sigga, who’s sentence was commuted to life in prison) to set the fire to cover it up? We are left with this ambiguity.
While Agnes’ story is compelling, the way Kent unfolds it makes it truly absorbing. We gradually glean all of this while Agnes is spending her last months working on the small-holding of District Officer Jón Jónsson, his wife Margrét and daughters Lauga and Steina. In the cramped living space of their croft – where everybody, including Agnes and the farmhands, sleep in a communal ‘badsofa’ – little can be kept private. So it is that Agnes’ conversations with her confessor, Toti, a pastor nominated to “prepare her for her meeting with the Lord” are largely overheard.
Initially horrified, the family gradually soften towards Agnes, realizing that, far from being a dangerous criminal, she is very much a product of the harsh, subsistence-living, farming community that they share. Little-by-little, as Agnes displays her skills at farming and domestic chores and as they hear her story, their dismay dissolves, first into pragmatic acceptance “just as well we’ve an extra pair of woman’s hands about the place” and then to respect, compassion and kindness. Particularly poignant is the description of Margrét, the night before the execution, laying out her best clothes for Agnes to wear in the morning.
Throughout, the narrative is interspersed with vivid descriptions of the wild Icelandic landscape, the harsh weather and the hardships of the community’s subsistence existence. All of which serve to convey a bleak and unforgiving backdrop against which the humanity of the main characters shine.
By any yardstick, “Burial Rites” is an exceptional novel. Exceptional in its intelligent exposition of the characters and their interaction. Exceptional in its evocative descriptions of Icelandic landscape, culture and social history. Exceptional in the sureness and confidence of the writing.
What makes this truly astonishing is that (1) Hannah Kent is Australian (2) this is her first novel and (3) she was 28 when it was published and – as you can see from her photograph – she looks 18. Eat your hearts out all aspiring writers (Don’t you just HATE her!). I suspect we’ll be reading a lot more from Ms Kent in the future – a wonderful prospect!