I have spent the last few days in Iceland. Australian author Hannah Kent transported me there with her deliciously descriptive debut novel, Burial Rites (2013). So engrossing was this book that I could hear the wind rattle the windows in my claustrophobic turf croft and feel the chill in my bones as the snow piled high outside my door.
Kent tells the story of Agnes Magnusdottir, a woman in her thirties who was sentenced to death for her role in the violent murder of two men on a remote farm in Northern Iceland. As there was no prison to hold her, Agnes was sent to a farm in Kornsa to live with a Christian family while special equipment was being created for her execution. Assistant Reverend Toti is appointed to administer to her spiritual needs and prepare her for her death.
Told from alternating perspectives as the seasons pass, Agnes’ childhood and the events leading up to the murders gradually unfold. The whole community is impacted by the arrival of Agnes, especially the family with whom she is billeted. The relationship between Margret and Agnes is particularly interesting, commencing with fear and disdain and evolving into empathy and even admiration.
Reminiscent of Margaret Atwood’s brilliant Alias Grace (1996), this historical fiction is based on real events and Kent has done tremendous research to embed this fictional account with such rich detail. Readers are left to contemplate broad issues of justice, guilt/innocence, capital punishment, poverty, family, faith, freedom and love.
I did not anticipate how much of page-turner this novel would be, and once I started I could not stop. I highly recommend this novel and cannot wait to see what Kent writes next.