Burial Rites

Hannah Kent

Published by Picador 29 August 2013

256pp, hardback, £12.99

Reviewed by Shirley Whiteside


In 1830, Agnes Magnusdottir was beheaded for her part in a double murder, the last person in Iceland to be executed.  On a Rotary exchange visit to Iceland, teenager Hannah Kent fromAdelaide, Australia, discovered Agnes’ story and some years later made her the subject of her PhD at Flinders University.  She revisited Iceland to further her research and the manuscript she wrote won the inaugural Writing Australia Unpublished Manuscript Award.  Publishers fell over themselves to secure the rights to Kent’s debut, recently published in the UK.

After being convicted of the murder of her lover, Natan, and another man, Agnes Magnusdottir is given into the care of Jon Jonsson and his family while waiting for her death sentence to be carried out. Jonsson is a district officer and farmer and lives with Margret, his wife, and two teenage daughters.  The family is horrified at the thought of a murderer living among them but they are being compensated by the state for their trouble.  However they come to know Agnes, a woman in her early thirties, and find she is nothing like the murderous witch of local gossip. Agnes is often visited by Toti, a young assistant priest, and slowly the story of her difficult life and the details of the murders become clear. 

At first Agnes is so enclosed in her own pain that she is merely a presence that other people react to but as she begins to trust Toti, an intelligent woman used to surviving in the harshest of physical and emotional conditions emerges. 

The Jonsson family is well drawn with Margret, slowly dying from consumption, having most interactions with the prisoner.  In spite of her initial mistrust, Margret finds herself liking Agnes as she realizes that local gossip has whipped up a false impression of the woman.  Toti, young and eager to please, becomes the clean slate on which Agnes can write the story of her life.

There is never a moment when Kent is not in complete control of her material.   She may have researched her subject thoroughly but her characters are not ciphers, they emerge as multi-dimensional participants in a tragedy. Kent’s fictionalization of Agnes’ story is beautifully counterpointed by extracts from contemporaneous letters and other historical documents.  It is a sober reminder that this is a tale where the murdered men are not the only victims.  The bleak landscape and harsh weather conditions onIcelandplay an important part both in setting the dark tone but also in showing how scraping a living on a small island battered by the elements affects its inhabitants.

Kent examines the gulf between the truth and how that truth is interpreted and retold.  In Kent’s imagination Agnes is given the chance to speak that she never had in life.  Her story is full of light and shade, mistakes and misunderstandings.  There is no simple black and white.  Agnes’ end is simply told and is all the more moving for it.  This is a beautiful, haunting tale and the fact that it is Kent’s debut makes her achievement all the more astonishing.

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