Against the fierce beauty of Northern Iceland’s landscape – windswept grass, craggy mountains and unpredictable skies – Burial Rites chronicles Agnes Magnusdottir’s last several months of life. Like the setting for the story, the novel’s language is luminous, evocative and breath-taking. Hannah Kent’s Iceland is alive and breathing: Autumn “falling upon the valley like a gasp” and its Winters brutally shaping the lives of its denizens.
This novel tells a dark story told in dimly lit rooms and populated with brooding characters, among them Fridrik Sigurdsson and Natan Ketilsson. Death is a frequent refrain in nineteenth century Iceland – from the necessity of deliberate slaughter to human death from cold, starvation, childbirth or disease. Murder or execution is just another way to leave this life on earth.
When the story opens, Agnes has already been convicted of murder and we meet her at her worst, half-mad with the cold and hunger, filthy and beaten, likely sexually assaulted. She is sent from Stora-Borg to a farm family at Kornsa where she is to be visited by a priest whose job it is to offer her repentance, thus easing her journey toward execution. Initially reviled and almost universally avoided, as Agnes struggles to find a way to cope she becomes increasingly human to her captors, to the extent that she finally finds her voice and reveals her version of the events surrounding the murders of Natan Ketilsson and Petur Jonsson. Sadly, her revelation comes too late to afford her any mercy.
Agnes’ story is revealed via historical records, through a third-person perspective and also from the first-person, inner dialogue of Agnes herself. And it is Agnes’ thoughts that reveal to the reader the pieces of the story that seem most raw and honest. In contrast, when Reverend Toti says to Agnes “actions speak louder than words” he says what many people even today may accept as common sense, but actions do not always reveal the truth. In fact, they can belie inner thoughts as can be seen throughout the novel.
While Agnes is educated and well-read, she is seemingly unable to speak up for herself. The stone given to her by her mother, said to enable one to speak with the birds, is symbolic of Agnes’ inability to express herself fully to the people around her. The power of words – the ability to express oneself, to have a voice and be understood – is vital for survival; this is a strong message found in this story, too.
Burial Rites is a novel to be enjoyed simply for the richness of the words, vividly describing the setting and carefully drawing the characters. As a tragedy, it provides evidence for the abolishment of capital punishment and calls for the empowerment of poor and marginalized in a society. And finally, its observations about life, death and the power of language render it a wisdom tale for all generations.
Reviewed by Angela Wiseman