It is March 1829 and Agnes Magnúsdóttir has been sentenced to be beheaded for murder. Her crime has made her notorious, and she is aware of the impact she now has on those around her:
I understood that these people did not see me. I was two dead men. I was a burning farm. I was a knife. I was blood.
To Björn Blöndal, the District Commissioner who presided over her trial, she cannot be trusted. He tells the young priest who is to attend her that she is:
‘… a woman loose with her emotions and looser with her morals. Like many older servant women she is practised in deception … You must apply the Lord’s word to her as a whip to a hard-mouthed horse. You will not get anywhere otherwise.’
While Agnes waits for the King of Denmark to confirm her sentence, at Blöndal’s direction she is sent to be lodged at the farm of the District Officer of Kornsá, Jón Jónsson. Jónsson has a wife, Margrét, and two teenage daughters, Steina and Lauga, and does not want a convict in his house – least of all an infamous murderess – but he is in no position to refuse. His eldest daughter Steina is furious:
The crime itself made her feel sick, and remembering the callous manner in which the Commissioner had forced the criminal upon them made her throat seize up with fury.
However, once Agnes arrives, wretched, filthy, bruised and bleeding from the casual brutality meted out as part of her imprisonment, she is immediately less dangerous and more formidable than the word ‘murderess’ suggests. As Margrét reflects, Agnes is ‘a landless workmaid raised on a porridge of moss and poverty’.
This is true, but Agnes is also intelligent and quick. A foster mother – whose death in childbirth one endless winter night is devastatingly described – took the trouble to teach her to read, and she has a close knowledge of the bible and of the Icelandic sagas.
But Agnes believes that it is her intelligence that has condemned her as much as anything: ‘… they see I’ve got a head on my shoulders, and believe a thinking woman cannot be trusted’.
It is a harsh life in the poor villages such as Kornsá on the edge of the Arctic Circle: crofts are small and cramped, the unlined turf walls are dank in winter and dusty in summer; windows are sealed with a dried sheep’s bladder or fish skin. Winters are harsh and long and the weather can be so severe that travel just from one farm to another becomes impossible. Water must be fetched from a stream. For hired hands, as Agnes has been all her life, the prosperity of a place is measured by whether there is enough to eat. There isn’t always.
The Jónssons’ farm can use an extra body and Margrét is swift to put Agnes to work, not scrupling to hand her a scythe at harvest time. Throughout the novel we see Agnes deftly churning butter, salting meat, carding wool, knitting socks and making sausages. The rhythms of the familiar work soothe her and provide an illusion of normal life; to stand in the sunshine swinging a scythe is a sublime moment. When an unthinking comment from Steina reminds her of her fate, she collapses, paralysed, reminded that there is no escape.
One of her few remaining rights as a prisoner is to choose the clergyman who will give her spiritual guidance as she prepares for death, and it is in conversations with the young Assistant Reverend, Tóti — many of them overheard by the entire household in the confined space of the farmhouse — and later with Margrét, that we learn about her past, how she came to be involved with the murdered Natan Ketilsson, and the events leading up to the murders.
We also get passages in Agnes’s own voice that give more detail. In an interview about the book, Hannah Kent says that she began writing Agnes’s story as a verse novel, and there is a strong poetic sensibility to these passages in particular. Recurring images (birds, ravens, stones) are used to judicious effect.
As the months pass at Kornsá – a place she knew as a child and a young woman – Agnes becomes part of the household, and now it is the younger sister, Lauga, who is furious and exclaims to Steina:
‘Everyone sees the Reverend gadding about Agnes like some besotted boy, and even Pabbi nods and says good morning to her now, ever since she witched Róslin’s baby from her. And you, Steina! … You want her to like you.’
Steina took a deep breath. ‘I … It’s only that I remember her from years ago. And I can’t stop thinking that she wasn’t always like this. She was our age, once. She has a mother and father, like us.’
But of course Agnes is not like the Jónsson sisters: they still have their parents and a home. However hard their lives are, they are not pauperised. There is a faint echo of Jane Eyre in Agnes’s story – and not simply because both feature a fire, but because each is the story of a woman without family, without material resources, dependent on the whims of employers and exquisitely vulnerable to circumstance.
Hannah Kent came across the real-life story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir when she travelled to Iceland as an exchange student as a teenager. She describes Burial Rites as ‘my dark love letter to Iceland, to her history, her people’. And the novel evokes the landscape and the lifestyles of 19th-century Icelanders with intimacy and a fine eye for detail.
Burial Rites is Hannah Kent’s debut novel and comes trailing considerable advance glory: winner of the inaugural Writing Australia award for an unpublished manuscript, a mentorship with and cover endorsement from Pulitzer-winner Geraldine Brooks, international publication deals in over 18 countries, and sparking a bidding war among Australian publishers. The expectation all this arouses can make it difficult to give a book a fair hearing.
But Burial Rites delivers. It is infused with the darkness of an Arctic winter, yet radiates an unmistakable human warmth. It does not flinch from blood and despair but fixes them boldly and reveals a measure of comfort and connection amid the darkness. Its world is both harsh and beautiful, unsentimental yet full of passion, and the reader cannot look away. This is an accomplished, finely textured and memorable work.
Hannah Kent Burial Rites Picador 2013 PB 352pp $32.99
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