Burial rites By Hannah Kent, Picador, £12.99
On January 12, 1830, Fridrik Sigurdsson and Agnes Magnusdottir were the last two persons executed in Iceland. In 2003, Hannah Kent from Australia spent a year as an exchange student with an Icelandic family in the north of the island. From this long term happenstance has emerged an impressive debut novel, based around the story of Agnes.
The events of the novel would be unbelievable were they not true. In 1829 Agnes Magnusdottir, a servant girl is condemned to death for her part in the brutal murder of her employer and lover Natan Ketillson and a companion. Natan Ketillson was well known as a poet, herbalist and healer as well as a serial philanderer — according to the local magistrate, his bastards litter the valley — and one of his lovers was Rosa Gudmundsdottir, long acknowledged as a major poet in Iceland. (The novel describes a tense meeting between Agnes and Rosa.)
After being held in horrific conditions in near darkness (a darkness that recalls Iceland’s long dark winter days), she is sent to wait out her last months at the farm of district officer, Jon Jonsson, his wife and two grown up daughters, until the fate of her appeal from far away Copenhagen. Understandably, the family is horrified at the thought of having a murderer in their midst — and one, who must share their living space in the “badstofa” (communal sleeping chamber) of their turf dwelling. In one of the few rights given to her, Agnes requests a young assistant priest Torvardur Jonnson (Toti) as her spiritual advisor, to prepare her for her eventual fate.
Kent’s tight plotting of the story holds the attention, even though readers will be aware of its climax. Her long stay in Iceland seems to have given her the ability to immerse herself in an alien culture. As the long days of the sub-arctic summer turn into the freezing long nights, Agnes is put to work alongside the family in the seasonal chores of an agricultural family. She proves to be hardworking and skilled. Kent’s intensive research is evident in the minute details of harvesting, slaughtering animals and making blood sausage — perhaps in more detail than a modern reader will enjoy. Almost against their will, the family comes to see Agnes as a person, rather than the demon she has been made out to be. Kent focuses on Agnes’s relationships with women — Jons’s wife Margret and the two daughters, Lauga and Steina, as they spent most time with Agnes. The younger daughter, Lauga, is openly hostile almost to the end, while Steina is frankly fascinated by Agnes. But it is Margret — suffering from what appears to be tuberculosis, evidenced by her frequent coughing and ejection of mucus — who becomes close to the mother figure Agnes never had.
Gradually, Toti, the young priest, and the family come to realize that Agnes’s story is much more complex than the facts presented in court. At first Toti (we learn that Agnes had a reason for requesting his presence) tries trite religious clichés, before he realizes that they have no resonance for her. Instead he becomes the listener for the story of Agnes’s life, a struggle for survival in a poor and backward society. In the close, foetid atmosphere of the badstofa, the family cannot help but hear. The tensions of living in close quarters in a similar turf house, on an isolated headland with another girl, Natan and the young man who is her co-accused — are presented by Agnes in almost calm and measured tones, leavened by sardonic humour, as if she knows that the details of her life often shock the young and inexperienced clergyman.
But Agnes is not merely a voice. Kent tells the story from multiple viewpoints —from the account of Agnes herself, but also her innermost thoughts, that of Margret, and of the young priest Toti, who fights against the prevailing prejudice against Agnes as a cold blooded murderess. Historical documents and poems form extended epigraphs for each chapter. While Agnes’s last months unfold, the reader becomes aware of the bureaucratic procedures for her beheading, from the practice needed for the headsman to do the deed, to the details of the axe and the block. (Eventually Natan’s brother was persuaded to do the deed which according to the concluding document, he performed with “craftsmanship”.)
In Kent’s telling, Agnes emerges as a strong and articulate woman, asking for no pity, hardened by her years of struggle, but with a yearning for affection and a sense of belonging. As she says to Toti: “All my life people have thought I was too clever…that’s exactly why they don’t pity me. Because they think I’m too knowing, too smart to get caught up in this by accident.” She is certainly more vividly portrayed than Toti, who comes across as weak and vacillating — but who achieves a certain dignity as he accompanies her on her last journey, where she breaks down when confronted with the inevitable. Natan seems to have been the first person whom Agnes loved, but he is presented as a silver-tongued, highly manipulative personality.
Iceland’s isolation from Europe and its language close to old Norse — the language of the old sagas, which are still a living presence in its culture — have made for a highly literate society. Kent is at pains to impress this upon her readers, some of whom may find the somewhat poetic diction of the characters unlikely. At times her prose is spare and terse, but at times she cannot resist the temptation to lapse into sentimental Mills and Boon idiom, as when Agnes recalls her first meeting with Natan. Despite this minor flaw, Kent has written a haunting tale, set against a vanished way of life in a stark landscape and an unforgiving climate.