Thursday, November 13, 2014

Executing History Perfectly- Agnes Magnúsdóttir and her "Burial Rites"

Courtesy of
Today, Iceland is a prime example of a country absolutely thriving in the modern, changing world.  It is at the top of the game in education, technology, human rights, and regularly tops the stats lists for one of the best and safest places to live in the world.  Yet, 200 years ago, Iceland was a desolate, harsh country, mostly empty space, with a smattering of extremely close-knit, interwoven communities, which feared strangers and change.  This setting, chilly in both the physical landscape and the social one, is where author Hannah Kent sets her novel, Burial Rites.  Burial Rites focuses on the last person executed in Iceland, Agnes Magnúsdóttir, in 1830.  A brilliant combination of historical fact and fiction, Burial Rites is a lyrical, somber, yet beautiful novel about love, betrayal, and the ability to overcome first judgments.

Agnes Magnúsdóttir and two others are accused of the brutal murder of their employer.  Two of the three are condemned to die.   Kent explores what could have happened; the event itself and Agnes are both hard to pinpoint down in the historical record.  Agnes is known only from the court and execution records.  However, it is a fact that, while awaiting Copenhagen's final decision on her fate, Agnes is sent to work for the family of a local district officer; the real family is portrayed in the novel.  It is this aspect of the ordeal that Kent makes her story.  Agnes's initial arrival is met with almost open hostility and distrust; after all, she is a convicted murderess.  Also thrust into the spotlight is a hesitant, uncertain pastor (also based on a real person), who has been instructed to counsel Agnes in her remaining days and to help her seek penance for her crime.  All persons who encounter Agnes are unhappy to be doing so; they are fearful of her, fearful of her crime, although they were also fearful of the man she killed.  Through the everyday interactions and work performed, both the depth and complexity of Agnes is revealed, leaving the family burdened with her questioning her, themselves, and their overall faith in God and in Iceland.

Agnes tells her story to the pastor, making Burial Rites literally a story within a story... and surprisingly, this works.  Agnes's storytelling gives character and emotion to the novel; the story of day to day life with the family sets up an excellent illustration of the setting and the way of life back then.  Agnes's personal history is largely fictional; however, it is convincing.  Kent does a wonderful job of portraying the stark poverty of the lower classes of Iceland and how their lives are completely in the hands of the upper class, resulting in a tumultuous lifestyle of near-slavery, constant movement between employers, and never-ending poverty and misery, especially for women.  Put this situation in a setting of frigid winters, nearly uninhabitable landscapes, and suspicious and intolerant townspeople, and the reader can see that there was no hope for Agnes from the beginning.  Nevertheless, the reader also sees that Agnes is highly intelligent, introspective, and serious.  She does not take her emotions lightly, thus ending up in the volatile situations that leads her to kill. Her story is heartbreaking, yet there is a certain amount of strength that is the undercurrent for her tale.  She never gives up, never doubts herself.  This strength lends itself to a beautiful character, albeit a murderess.  As a person, Agnes herself is what creates the crux of the story: can someone convicted of a murder be a good person?  Can morals and laws be ambiguous to the point where the convicted is the victim?
Author Hannah Kent, courtesy of

Agnes's passion and recklessness play a perfect parallel to the other main character,  Iceland.  The weather, the rugged landscape, and the unforgiving nature of rural living in Iceland all contribute to the demeanor of the people who live there.   Kent, despite being an Australian, paints a haunting portrait of a country and its people at odds with itself and with a changing world.  The reader can see how year after year of rough and hard living and coexistence with one of the world's most extreme climates has turned the Icelanders into hardy, cold, sensible, yet highly superstitious people.  Agnes's character, which is different from their own, causes whispers of witchcraft and sorcery.  This is almost in complete contrast to the way they view their lifestyle, which is logically and realistically.  The beauty of Iceland lies within its mountains, its proximity to the ocean, its streams, and the summer vegetation. The book is worth reading solely for the representation of Iceland, a country that is not usually featured in novels.  However, the reader will get a succinct and memorable setting from Kent, who does not shy away from lengthy setting descriptions or from just pulling the reader away from the story for a bit to enjoy the country side.

This is not a mystery.  There is a crime, yes, but there is no solving the problem.  We know from the outset that Agnes is executed; it is a historical fact.  However, Burial Rites is more than worth reading.  It is worth several reads.  One will simply not be able to forget the daunting facets of living in Iceland; Kent makes their lives not romantic, but seeming trials of tenacity.  Burial Rites will leave you questioning.  Questioning morals, law, punishment, and just what exactly is a crime.