My rating: 4 stars
The picture that people paint of a person may not be entirely accurate. At first, Agnes, the protagonist of Burial Rites by Hannah Kent, instils fear in many of the other characters in this historical fiction novel. She has been considered a criminal after all. But, as time passes, they start to see another side of her, she stops being just a stranger that committed a crime. The same happens to the reader. Throughout the book, set in Northern Iceland in 1829, we learn more about her previous predicaments, making it easy to empathise with her and feel her pain.
Agnes Magnúsdóttir is one of the three people charged with the murder of two men, Nathan, who was her lover, and Pétur. She is sentenced to death. At the orders of the District Commissioner, she is to wait for the date of her execution at the house of one of the officers in the district, Jón. His wife, Margrét, isn’t happy about it, and neither are their daughters, Lauga and Steina.
While staying there, Agnes receives the visit of Assistant Reverend Thorvardur, whom she requested as her spiritual advisor and the priest responsible for her absolution. Their paths had crossed in the past, but he doesn’t remember her at first. He is not confident of his abilities to carry this task, as he doesn’t have much practice as a reverend yet.
The story is told from three different perspectives. Agnes’s point of view in the first person is the most affecting and atmospheric. It immediately arouses curiosity to know what really happened and what her role in the murders was. Hints are dropped throughout her musings, which are complemented by the perspectives in the third person of Thorvardur and one of the members of Jón’s family. The three perspectives come together to uncover what led to the death of the two men. What was the extent of Agnes’s involvement in the murders?
“I want to shake my head. That word does not belong to me, I want to say. It doesn’t fit me or who I am. It’s another word, and it belongs to another person.”
Two characters in particular come fully alive throughout the book: Agnes and Margrét. Agnes is believably portrayed as someone who is misunderstood. Her distress in certain moments is palpable. It’s impossible not to be deeply affected by it. Margrét’s dissatisfaction with Agnes being placed in her home doesn’t prevent her from pitying her when she arrives. She is unsettled by the blood on her skin and the mud on her clothes. Her opinion on Agnes gradually changes as she learns more about her.
The descriptions not only of the characters’ surroundings, but also of their features, gestures and actions are detailed. It’s like the scenes are taking shape in front of our eyes, and we are right there next to the characters.
“Margrét recalled Agnes’s shoulderblades. Razor-sharp, they’d poked out from the rough cloth of her undergarment, which was yellowed around the neckline and stained a filthy brown under the armpits.”
The proximity achieved by the meticulous descriptions is not enough to make the entirety of the book engaging. While Agnes is telling Thorvardur about what happened in her life and what led to her predicament, the book can occasionally become slightly less appealing, despite my constant curiosity, since he is a passive listener. There are almost no interventions by him. As a consequence, Agnes’s truths at those instances seem dispassionate. Her inner thoughts are far more enthralling and affecting.
The opening paragraph is, in fact, just a first example of how touching and poignant Burial Rites can be.
“They said I must die. They said that I stole the breath from men, and now they must steal mine. I imagine, then, that we are all candle flames, greasy-bright, fluttering in the darkness and the howl of the wind, and in the stillness of the room I hear footsteps, coming to blow me out and send my life up away from me in a grey wreath of smoke.”
Hannah Kent drew inspiration from a true story – Agnes Magnúsdóttir was the last woman to be sentenced to death in Iceland – and created a touching novel.