Title – Burial Rites
Author – Hannah Kent
Genre – Fictionalized biography
“People claim to know you through the things you’ve done, and not by sitting down and listening to you speak for yourself.”
~Agnes Magnúsdóttir (1828)
When I love a book, I waste no time in talking and writing about it – people need to know, and they need to read. There are very few books which strike such a chord that I’m left dwelling on them long after reading – whatever I say will not be enough; no review would ever do justice. “Burial Rites” falls in the latter category. This book came highly recommended from an online literary forum I follow, and in spite of receiving numerous recommendations I only recently got around to reading it. And what a treat it has been! I usually avoid reading fictional accounts of true incidents, and rather opt for non-fiction books on the same subject, if available. But Hannah Kent’s debut work was highly spoken of and I decided to give the then twenty-eight year old writer a shot. “Burial Rites” is a novelization of a true story set in the early 1800s cold, wintered landscape of Iceland, and is centered around the conviction and final days of a woman sentenced to death for a double murder – commonly known as the Illugastaðir murders, the farm where the killings took place. Capital punishment was abolished in Iceland in 1830, and Agnes Magnúsdóttir was the last woman to be beheaded.
Agnes Magnúsdóttir, a thirty something housemaid, is charged with the murder of her master and his friend. The district commissioner Björn Blöndal has entrusted her to the household of one of the officers – where she needs to be kept until her execution. In his words, death row convicts need to be placed in the homes of upright Christians who would set a good example and inspire repentance in the criminals, and at the same time benefit from the work these prisoners do in and around their farms as they await their judgement. The family is compensated by the government for their contribution to society, and officers are also present on the premises to ensure no harm comes to the locals. A young priest, Assistant Reverend Thorvardur Jónsson is required to visit the household and pray with the criminal to ensure she is repentant by the time of her execution. The family is horrified at the prospect of housing a murderess and avoid interacting with her. The reverend has no prior experience in dealing with murder convicts, and all he can contribute are passages from the Bible. Agnes has nothing to do at the farm since the family is wary of giving her any “tools” – suspicious of what she can use to kill them with. Even a request to knit is almost a plead, with the possible harm she could do with knitting needles. Having to idle away time till her death and no one to talk to, Agnes hopes to be killed then and there itself. “Why not kill me here and now? It is the waiting that cripples.”
The story is narrated through a series of correspondence between the various officials involved in the case – the district commissioner, the priests, the district officer, various clerks and officers handling the criminal records. Not to be confused with an epistolary novel, these were actual letters exchanged at the time which the author has translated and presented to the reader. Each chapter begins with numerous letters, and then follows changing narratives from the third person’s accounts of the happenings in the case, to Agnes herself speaking in first person. And step by step, the reader is led through Agnes’ story – her childhood and adulthood, her parents and siblings, her work life, ultimately leading to the core of the murder mystery that shook Iceland in the early nineteenth century – What exactly happened on the day of the murder that led Agnes to her present state?
“They have strapped me to the saddle like a corpse being taken to the burial ground” , says Agnes, when taken to the farm that will house her till her death. And this is the crux of “Burial Rites” – the entire book is a rite of passage for Agnes as she readies herself for death. Agnes looks forward to living at the farm even when none of the residents want her there (and are only abiding to the district commissioner’s orders), being “grateful that I am returning to the valleys, even if I will die there”. Because living (and dying) in nature is better than “rotting slowly like a body in a coffin” – the atmosphere of the prison she was housed in before being transferred to the farm. Set in the present moment at the farm, the story is narrated in flashback mode through conversations and interactions with various family members – the officer, his wife Margret, the daughters Steina and Lauga, the priest Toti, and Agnes’ thoughts. And as the day of execution nears, the wife, daughters and priest learn of the other side to the sensational double murder story as projected by the authorities and rumor mills. Her final audience to life’s lonely narrative. An absolutely riveting account as Agnes goes from wanting to die to wanting to live, when people finally hear and understand her. “I don’t want to be remembered, I want to be here!” But can they do more? Appeal to the government? Stop the execution? No spoilers here since we know what finally happened to Agnes Magnúsdóttir – the last person to be executed in Iceland, before the country finally abolished capital punishment in 1830.
Some of the quotes are so beautiful I thought they deserved a mention here:
~I was worst to the one I loved best.
~I will speak in bubbles of air. They will not be able to keep my words for themselves.
~The home had begun to disintegrate, a hovel that had spread its own state of collapse to its inhabitants.
~A tight fear, like a fishing line, hooked upon something that must, inevitably, be dragged from the depths.
~A tremble of exhilaration passes along my skin, like the tremor on the surface of a pot of water about to boil.
~Memories shift like loose snow in a wind, or are a choral of ghosts all talking over one another.
~There was some comfort in talking about death aloud, as though in naming things, you could prevent them from happening.
~There is so much illness in the world…so much that can go wrong with a person.
~A person you love as much as you hate the hold they have on you.
~They said I must die. They said that I stole the breath from men, and now they must steal mine.
Kent’s interpretation of the Illugastaðir murders and executions is based on years of research through accessing ministerial records, parish archives, local publications, historical records, letters and documents. There are several works of literature and poetry mentioned, highlighting the high literacy rates among Icelanders since the end of the eighteenth century. Some sagas quoted go as far back as 1245. I loved the snippets of Icelandic, and was glad to learn some phrases in the local language. Kent’s meticulously researched and written account is commendable indeed – for a debut writer, and just at twenty eight years of age when the book was published. When you already know how the story ends, it takes a great writer to hold the reader’s attention till the end. In today’s social media age, people’s opinions and judgements of each other are often based on what is read or heard or seen on feeds, posts and pictures. In the early 1800s, Agnes Magnúsdóttir raised the same question – What happens when one’s life is based on the stories told by others? Without speaking to the person, the world claims to know all about them. The fairness of the original proceedings of Iceland’s “most notorious woman” was questioned even centuries later, and reading “Burial Rites” is not for everyone. A difficult story to read but one that needs to be read for the many questions it raises. Kent is a talented writer and efficient researcher, and this is one of the few books where the author and protagonist of his/her story compete for attention – such is the brilliance of this speculative biography, a beautifully haunting, gripping, and outstanding debut work of literature. I read this on Kindle, but plan on procuring a paperback – it deserves a place in the library.
My rating – 5/5