They said I stole the breath from men, and now they must steal mine.
1829, Iceland. Agnes Magnúsdóttir has been condemned to death as an accomplice in the brutal murder of Natan Ketilsson and his house guest, Pétur Jónsson. She will become the last woman executed in Iceland. In this vivid Scandinavian crime novel, based on a true story, Hannah Kent imagines Agnes’ final months.
Kent’s Agnes is a remarkable character. To society she is but a murderess, a landless peasant, victim to poverty and fated to a cruel end – her intelligence is suspicious, she’s fallen prey to desire and keen jealousy, and her actions have labelled her a monster. The family of Kornsà, who grudgingly takes her in while she awaits sentencing, is intolerant of her and horrified by her crime. She’s a thing made for gossip and distrust. But gradually, they find themselves considering the humanity of the condemned woman. There is a grace about Agnes, she’s seen both the brutality and tenderness of life and in her last months she chooses to embrace everyday routine, a sense of normalcy, even as the executioner sharpens his blade.
But Agnes knows how her story will end.
So does the assistant reverend Tóti. Assigned with absolving Agnes of her sins, he feels daunted by his task and intrigued by his charge. His approach is sympathetic, tinged with self-doubt and instead of staunch disapproval, he offers a willing ear. As the execution date draws near, Agnes is gently coaxed to divulge the events surrounding the night of Natan Ketilsson’s murder – Natan, the complex and intriguing eccentric with a talent for healing illness, be it as a gifted herbalist or, some say, by dabbling in sorcery. His reputation is marked with superstition and scandal, and he is both revered and detested for his arrogance and debauchery.
Burial Rites unfolds slowly, drawing you in page after page as it reveals its secrets. Every time I set it aside and went about my day, I felt compelled to pick it up again and uncover more of this fascinating story. Darkly poetic and tragic, this debut novel is precisely as Kent refers to it in her Author’s Note – a dark love letter to Iceland.
If you’d like to learn more about the characters and setting of this exquisite novel, take a peek at author Hannah Kent’s essay Hunches and the Historical Novel at Kill Your Darlings, and Burial Rites: a photo essay from Iceland at Picador.