Fictionally recreating a story taken from an Icelandic legend, Hannah Kent crafts a thrilling first novel about the last execution in the country which took place in 1830. In a richly descriptive narrative she evokes the bleak barren northern region of Iceland with its sparsely-populated lands battered by snowstorms. Only a scattering of claustrophobic rural houses are scattered across the land heated by compact dung and teeming with mold which creeps into the lungs of the inhabitants. A woman named Agnes has been convicted for the murder of two men at a remote farm where she was working as a servant. Due to financial constraints the district commissioner has placed Agnes in the custody of a family to look after. Agnes requests that a young assistant reverend nicknamed Toti council her in the time leading up to her execution. The novel recounts her time at this farm where she slowly builds a strained relationship with the family that keeps her and recounts the story leading up to her conviction to the reverend who becomes enamoured with the tragic fated woman.
Touted primarily as a Scandinavian thriller (since those are all the rage at the moment) the book’s real driving motivation is to give voice to a woman who was scandalized in her time and persecuted. The author has spoken about how Agnes is a well known presence in Icelandic popular tradition and someone who probably didn’t receive a balanced judgement in her time because she was an illegitimate woman from the lower classes. As Agnes states to the reverend: “'To know what a person has done, and to know who a person is, are very different things.'” Informed by only a few scant details driven more by gossip than a serious investigation, the community persecutes Agnes and mistrusts her. However, through revealing her personal story to those around her and gaining their trust by hard menial labor and lending her dynamic knowledge about farming and medicine, Agnes gains a guarded amount of respect.
It was a challenge trying to mentally sound-out the long complex Icelandic names in my head while reading – as bad as reading Russian novels – but after a hundred pages it all started to flow and sound familiar. Kent has a good ear for creating tense dialogue between characters. At her most poignant, the author merges the characters emotion with the stark landscape around them: “Memories shift like loose snow in a wind, or are a chorale of ghosts all talking over one another... It's the glaze of ice over the water, too fragile to trust.” The haunting landscape mirrors the fragility of her position. It’s as if the cold bitter country all around her is adding to Agnes’ indictment and embodies the cruel dismissal of her human integrity.
One of the most impactful scenes is when Agnes begins an affair with Natan, the man she’ll later be accused of killing, who speaks to her about absences they share in life:
‘Do you know what it means, to have a hollow palm? It means there is something secretive about us. This empty space can be filled with bad luck if we’re not careful. If we expose the hollow to the world and all its darkness, all its misfortune.’
‘But how can one help the shape of one’s hand?’ I was laughing.
‘By covering it with another’s, Agnes.’
This gesture of intimacy which would seem like a tender exchange of someone revealing the most hidden aspect of themselves to another and discovering a commonality here has a darker edge. It’s as if it signals the prelude to nightmare rather than high romance. I admire how Kent twists expectations to create this effect.
“Burial Rites” is a fast-paced and emotional read. The hints of an impending civilized approach to living for the hard-working poor communities in rural Iceland are presented in stark contrast to the barbaric forms of punishment doled out to those who don’t even receive a fair trial. The novel isn’t so much a thriller as it is a tribute to women who have been used and oppressed.