Burial Rites by Hannah Kent (Little, Brown, Sept. 2013)-Agnes Magnúsdóttir has been convicted of taking part in the brutal murder of two men, Natan Ketilsson and Pétur Jónsson, along with Sigrídur (Sigga) Gudmundsdóttir and Fridrik Sigurdsson. Agnes is sent to northern Iceland to stay with a family until her execution can be carried out, and Burial Rites tells the story of Agnes’s time with this family, and is interspersed with her first person narrative of the events leading up to the crime in question. When she arrives at the farmhouse of Kornsá, she is met with wariness, especially from Lauga, one of two young sisters, and Margrét, their mother. Their father, Jón, is mostly indifferent to her presence, accepting that it’s his responsibility as a town official, but Lauga’s sister, Steina, is fascinated with Agnes and she recognizes her from an encounter from when the girls were much younger, in which Agnes showed them a small act of kindness. Steina just can’t believe that this quiet, melancholy woman could be guilty of the crimes that she has been convicted of. Agnes has requested that a young priest, Assistant Reverend Thorvardur Jónsson, or Tóti, be her spiritual guardian until the time of her execution, and it isn’t forgiveness that she seeks, but something else entirely.
Burial Rites is Hannah Kent’s first novel, but you certainly wouldn’t know it from the confident voice of Agnes to the gorgeous, meticulous descriptions of Icelandic farm life in the mid-1800s. It’s also based on a true story, which makes it all the more devastating, and indeed, many of the “official” documents that accompany the narrative have been adapted from original sources . I loved everything about this book, but my favorite parts were Agnes’s first person accounts of her time with Natan, and their relationship, which was passionate, fraught, and eventually, for Agnes, an obsession. Did Agnes’s obsession lead to murder? I’ll leave that for you to find out, but her guilt or innocence is not the point. Burial Rites is the portrait of a woman who has always been an outsider, an orphan from a young age, and the eventual acceptance of her as part of the family that takes her in, and comes to care for her, during the days leading up to her execution. This is a lovely and haunting novel, and one that will stay with you long after you read the final page.