|The axe and block used to behead Agnes Magnúsdóttir
I’ll get straight to the point: Hannah Kent has written the best debut novel I have ever read. Burial Rites is a superlative piece of historical fiction that was inspired by a year long stay as an exchange student in northern Iceland when Kent was just 17 in 2002. While she was out with her host family she asked about the significance of a valley they were driving through and they pointed out a cluster of three hills and told her about Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last person to be executed in Iceland in 1830. Nearly ten years later Kent chose the story of Agnes as the subject for the novel she would write for her PHD.
Burial Rites is an intensely emotional and psychological document of an obscure event in the history of Iceland that displays Kent’s ability to write complex and nuanced characters. Agnes, a morally ambiguous and complex character is central to Burial Rites, however all of the other characters are also brilliantly realised, giving the novel great depth. After her trial Agnes is removed from a makeshift prison and is taken to the home of the Jonsson family to wait out her last days. The Jonsson family are torn between duty to state bureaucracy, in the form of the pompous and stern Blondal, and their fear of the murderess in their midst. Charged as the savoir of her soul, the youthful priest Toti is at first tested by Agnes’ request that he help her through her last days, but is then dedicated to her beyond the call of his religious duty. The relationship between Toti and Agnes allows the story of Agnes’ life to be revealed at a natural pace, making it a brilliantly subtle narrative device to generate tension. The Jonsson daughters, Steina and Lauga, are divided in their reactions to Agnes’ presence. Their mother, Margret, is initially distrustful, yet the presence of Agnes ends up bringing out the best in her. There is a particularly poignant scene in which the two women share a late night hot milk whilst Agnes tells of the events that led her to her fate. Agnes and Margaret are powerfully complex female characters that are so real and vital that you feel like you’ve shared many months with them in their badstofa, the Icelandic communal living and sleeping space used during that era.
The fact that Kent had lived in the area for a year and had then conducted six weeks of research to uncover the available records concerning the murders Agnes was involved in no doubt significantly helped her write such a quality novel. Letters and documents from the era feature throughout the novel, giving a harsh bureaucratic contrast to the tragic events and their aftermath. Such details give Burial Rites some historical credence, but it is the brilliance of Kent’s prose that really stands out. Kent’s prose style is beautifully poised and pared back; there’s nothing excessive and nor is there anything wasted. The bleak landscape of Iceland is unavoidable, yet not once does Kent overdo it with florid adjectives; nor does she waste the metaphorical power of the Icelandic environment. Her descriptive powers are such that the reader is right there with the characters, trudging through the alien landscape and huddling in the badstofa on freezing cold nights. Kent also generates compelling narrative tension by contrasting her third person omniscient narrative with sections in Agnes’ profoundly authentic first person voice.
Ultimately Burial Rites acts as an affirmation of the worth of historical fiction. Historians have been known to be suspicious of historical fiction, worried that authors distort facts and invent persons or situations that never occurred, giving readers a false impression of important historical events. Historians do have a valid point and I’m sure that some historical fiction does lead to inaccurate assumptions about the past; however a novel like Burial Rites brings alive the past, allowing readers to experience what it might have been like to be alive in an otherwise unknowable past. Kent has done us a great service, as it is unlikely that most people outside of Iceland would have ever known about Agnes Magnúsdóttir. Read Burial Rites and you will know exactly what it would be like to live through your last hours knowing that your head was going to be removed by an axe on top of a lonely Icelandic hill in the depths of a nineteenth century winter. The last chapter of Burial Rites is one of the most chilling and emotionally intense endings to a novel I have ever read and it will stay with me for a long time to come.
Endnote: Recently I’ve been wondering whether I’ve been harsh in my assessments of some of the books I’ve read recently, having given amazing books my second highest rating of excellent. After reading Burial Rites I find that I was correct in my judgements. Burial Rites deserves the sublime rating. It is the best literary historical fiction novel I have ever read, and that includes Hilary Mantel’s Man Booker Prize winning Wolf Hall (2009).