Hannah Kent was a teenage exchange student from Australia when she first heard about Agnes Magnusdottir, the last person to be executed in Iceland (in 1829). A decade long obsession with the woman has resulted in a fictionalised account of Agnes’ life which has become something of a publishing sensation, generating a bidding war for publishing rights after winning the inaugural Writing Australia Unpublished Manuscript Award. As Hannah Kent is a local girl and there aren’t many girls (or boys for that matter) from my home town who make it big in world publishing, my book club couldn’t resist seeing what all the fuss was about.
If I had to choose a genre besides crime fiction as my favourite it would be what Kent describes (in the TV documentary that aired here a couple of months ago) as speculative biography. I’ve never heard the term before but it’s a perfect description to suit things like Geraldine Brooks’ YEAR OF WONDERS (one of my all time favourite novels) and this novel. Essentially Kent has researched as much as humanly possible about Agnes, the murders she was convicted of and life in Iceland at the time and told Agnes’ story, imagining what she wasn’t able to supply with facts.
Kent uses a range of mechanisms to piece together her version of Agnes’ life and death. The extracts from letters and other primary sources which begin each chapter ground the story in time and social structure. They also provide the factual details of the conviction, the sentence and the odd arrangements made for the period before the execution will take place. This is how we first learn for example that Agnes and and her fellow accused are, for financial and logistical reasons, to be housed with the families of local officials until the executions can be carried out. The discussions Agnes has with Toti, the young assistant priest she has chosen as her spiritual adviser, provide most of the details of Agnes’ early life of abandonment by her mother and eking out an existence as a servant. Finally the passages told from Agnes’ own point of view provide the perspective of a woman who knows she is going to die, horribly, and who is afraid. Her memories, her hopes, her fears, her wishes for a different life are all depicted alongside her experiences of conviction, imprisonment and living with the family who are, at least initially, repulsed by the idea of having to house someone universally thought of as a whore and murderer.
Together these elements tell an evocative story in which the setting plays a major role. Not only is the weather cold, miserable and dark for much of the novel but the time and location add to the sense of bleakness that pervades this book. It’s no surprise that a poor servant would have had little in the way of creature comforts during her life but even the home of Agnes’ host family – the father of whom is some sort of official – is pretty uninviting. The small house is made of mud which falls from the walls and ceilings and is always damp and all the householders – parents, children, servants, the occasional visitor and Agnes – sleep in the same room, which is basically the same space as all the inside living and cooking is done. I swear that as I read I started to smell a combination of bad food and unwashed bodies which is a testament to Kent’s image-laden writing.
Then of course there’s Agnes herself who, even by the end of the novel, is still something of an unknown quantity though I don’t mean this as a criticism. I simply don’t think we’re meant to know everything about her or have answers to all of the questions that her recollections and the known facts of her life might cause us to wonder about. We do however have a strong sense of who this woman might have been. When she hears that her priest wants to know more of her background she muses
“If he wants to learn of my family he’ll have a hard time of it. Two fathers and a mother who seem as blurry to me as strangers departing through a snowstorm”
which sets the scene for the kind of life she had in the 30 odd years prior to when we meet her. She has had to fend for herself, always, and even before she learned it would be dramatically cut short any dreams she harboured for her future were so modest they barely warrant the term. But even though Agnes was depicted as settling easily, almost willingly, into her role of servant to the family she never became resigned to her ultimate fate. She wanted, desperately, to live.
In small ways though she makes an impact, demonstrating to some of the family at least that she might not be what they had been led to believe. One of the family’s daughters comes to think of her as a friend and the mother grows quite close to Agnes in some ways. Though this aspect of the story must surely be conjecture, for me it seemed terribly credible. It’s hard to imagine not becoming close to others when you’re living and working on top of each other day in and day out.
In some ways the things I liked most about BURIAL RITES were the things that weren’t there. It didn’t provide easy answers, it’s ending didn’t include lurid details (though Kent doesn’t gloss over the undoubted horror of a public beheading) and there were no implausible scenes better suited to the modern day. It is a sad but rich story that offers a glimpse into the world of someone we have to imagine because Agnes Magnusdottir is one of the millions of people which official history records precious little about. I thoroughly enjoyed meeting her.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
BURIAL RITES is the 16th book I’ve read for this year’s Australian Women Writers Challenge
Publisher Pan Macmillan Australia 
Length 338 pages
Format trade paperback
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