There were three books that I read before this that I’d like to share with you but since this book is on the Bailey’s shortlist, I think it’s good to talk about it now. When I first read the blurb, I was intrigued. Murderess, Iceland, death row? Wow!
It’s a story about Agnes Magnusdottir. Agnes was the last person to be executed in Iceland, together with two of her accomplice, for the murder of two men in March 1828. As the Danes and Icelandic want to set an example of the execution, they have decided that Agnes will be executed in Iceland. So the permission was granted by the Danish government, money is spent on the axe. As Iceland had no prison at the time, Agnes is sent to live and work with a family in Kornsa, ironically the village where Agnes grew up (to rub it in), to await her death sentence. She has chosen a young and inexperienced Assistant Reverand Thorvardur Jonsson (Toti) to absolve her. Instead of guiding Agnes to repentance and prayer, Reverand Toti lended a listening ear to Agnes instead. Here the story is narrated in first person and third person narration, mostly Agnes and Toti, to unveil the past and the current animosity that is felt by family in Kornsa. Jon, Margret, Lauga and Steina. The more revealing segment of the story though is reserved in Agnes’ private thoughts.
Agnes was a housemaid to an herbalist and farmer called Natan Ketilsson. It appears that Agnes and the famous poet Rosá Gudmundsdóttir were both in love with Ketilsson. In Natan’s farm, there live a 16-year-old housegirl, Sigrídur (Sigga) Gudmundsdóttir and occasional farmhand, Fridrik Sigurdsson, who admire Sigga. The murder occurred in Illugastadir on the night of March 13, 1828. Agnes alerted neighbors that Natan Ketilsson’s farmhouse was on fire and that Natan and his friend Pétur Jónsson were trapped inside. Both had been stabbed to death. As the day of the execution draws near, will we know the truth about Agnes and what happen that day?
I was reading a string of books before Burial Rites, Dark Road (Ma Jian), The Shadow of the Crescent Moon (Fatima Bhutto), few pages of Lowland (Jhumpa Lahiri) and The Goldfinch (Donna Tartt), Infatuations (Javier Marias) simultaneously and none I could engage with until I read Burial Rites and it just swept me away from the first page and I found myself kept reading and reading it.
Why was I so captivated by the novel?
First, the writing was crisp and easy to read. It flows. Then it was how bad Agnes was treated as a prisoner, less than a human, the prison condition and the abuse on Agnes were appalling, I felt sorry for her but I also wonder if she is innocent with her unconventional lifestyle. Back then women have so few choices that it saddens me to think despite Agnes strong character, she has to yield to the demands of the men in charge, in charge of her job, her life and the men who decide when the fall of the axe upon her. As a backdrop to Agnes’ bleak future is the more bleaker landscape (how apt). I like reading about the harsh landscape, the farming procedure, the badstofas and how family ration their food and coffee as a luxury item in 19th century Iceland. It makes the story more engaging.
Now comes the darkening sky and a cold wind that passes right through you, as though you are not there, it passes through you as though it does not care whether you are alive or dead, for you will be done and the wind will still be there, licking the grass flat upon the ground, not caring whether the soil is at a freeze or thaw, for it will freeze and thaw again, and soon your bones, now hot with blood and thick-juicy with marrow, will be dry and brittle and flake and freeze and thaw with the weight of the dirt upon you, and the last moisture of your body will be drawn up to the surface by the grass, and the wind will come and knock it down and push you back against the rocks, or it will scrape you up under its nails and take you out to sea in a wild screaming of snow.
The things I like least about the book is that I find is the wantonness and messy relationships between the residents of Ketilsson’s farmhouse feels like an excerpt from a gossip magazine. In 1829, the last public execution in Iceland was held. Despite the climax that we look forward to, I was mildly surprised the drama was underplayed. Kent would not be in a position to speculate what Agnes last thoughts were but the execution day encounter seems rushed through.
The book haunts me long after I put down the book. This is the basis that I judge if it is an extraordinary book for me. While thinking about it now as I write the review, I feel compel to read it again. This novel shouldn’t be comparable to a true crime or Scandi crime noir league. It’s unique. I would like very much for Americanah to win but I am not surprised if Burial Rites come up as the winner instead. I would be equally happy.
Library Copy. [Picador 2014], [355 pages], Northern Iceland, Finished reading at 8 April 2014. Tuesday.
About the writer:
Hannah Kent (born 1985) is a contemporary Australian writer, and the author of the bestselling novel Burial Rites (2013).
Kent co-founded and served as deputy editor of Australian literary journal Kill Your Darlings, and is completing her creative writing PhD at Flinders University. In 2011 she won the inaugural Writing Australia Unpublished Manuscript Award. The novel was published in May 2013 in Australia and the UK by Picador and in September 2013 in the United States and Canada by Little, Brown.
Kent was included in the 2013 Waterstones 11 for her debut novel Burial Rites (2013), which revisits the true story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last person to be executed in Iceland. Burial Rites was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award, and was shortlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction (2014). A documentary about Kent’s experiences in Iceland and writing Burial Rites was aired on ABC1 as an episode of Australian Story titled ‘No More Than a Ghost,’ on 1 July 2013.
Jennifer Lawrence is set to play Agnes Magnúsdóttir in big screen.
Have heard so much about this novel, but not read as compelling a review as yours. I’ve found a recent fascination with novels from Iceland, most notably The Sorrow of Angels which I read for the IFFP 2014. There was something about the mood and the setting that sets it quite apart, not to mention the fabulous writing. So, I am sorely tempted with this book as well. Thanks for the great review!
I too seek novels, mostly crime fictions, so it was refreshing to read a book about a real historical figure in Iceland. Some reviewers have cited the lack of Icelandic ambience to this novel but how this novel won my heart was at its core a misunderstood female protagonist. I look forward to hear what you think about it! 🙂
Mercy, Jennifer Lawrence just gets all the parts, doesn’t she?
She seems to be! Strong character part suits her I suppose but I can’t seem to warm up to her, similar to Renee Zellweger, as much as she is a great actress.
I have this one. I was all excited about reading it but then lost interest. I see you rated it highly but still had some issues with it. Should I push it up on my list?
How far into the book when you lost interest? If you haven’t read it, I hope you give it another try. I find it for some strange reason, haunting. The feeling of reading Wuthering Heights but less dramatic of course.
Sounds lovely and just my style. Sigh! There’s just too many books and just not enough time. And Jennifer Lawrence sounds like she’d be great for the part.
I agree. There is just too many books, sigh.. I just finished Lowland a few minutes ago, oh boy it’s just as good. Too bad that Lowland is up against some very tough contenders on the Bailey’s shortlist this year, otherwise it would have been a sure winner.
I loved this one too, mainly as it was so atmospheric of Iceland and the society of the time.
Like you, I’m hoping Americanah will win, but I won’t be disappointed if this one does instead…
I feel the same too, High five! Lets see what pans out. 🙂