Awaiting execution

This is my review of Burial Rites by Hannah Kent.

On a visit to Iceland, Australian teenager Hannah Kent became fascinated by the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last woman to be executed there in 1829. Agnes was convicted with two accomplices of involvement in the brutal double murder of herbalist Natan Kedilsson and his visitor Pétur Jónsson, setting fire to his house in an attempt to conceal the crime. Keen to explore the ambiguity of her guilt, what had shaped Agnes as a person who might commit such a crime yet retain some humanity and evoke sympathy, Hannah Kent went on to research the case in depth for a PhD which included a creative novel on the subject, leading to the publication of this bestseller, “Burial Rites”. I liked the way in which imagined scenes are interspersed with documentary evidence.

My first attempt to read this book failed as I found many of the characters somewhat two-dimensional and written too much in the same “voice”, the dialogue stilted, the prose often overblown. Much of the book is quite slow-paced and repetitive, continually reinforcing the bleak detail. Forcing myself to finish it for a book group, my main reservation became that too many events are told statically, rather than shown dramatically, through the device of Agnes relating them to a third party. I accept that this could reflect the oral tradition of relating Icelandic sagas over interminable dark winter evenings. It also raises the intriguing question as to her reliability as a witness. However, the storyline, which is quite well-developed as regards Agnes’s relationship with the ailing wife and two contrasting sisters at the farm to which she is sent pending her final sentence and execution, becomes fragmented and confusing as regards the events leading up to the final crime. Again, this could be intentional as regards suggesting ambiguity.

My conclusion is that Hannah Kent is an enthusiastic researcher rather than a talented writer, so that the main interest lies in the detailed portrayal of the harsh life in northern Iceland and social customs of the day. Whereas we now think of Iceland as a sexually liberated country, in the early C19, women farm workers had a raw deal, forced to choose between accepting the advances of their employers or being thrown out to possibly certain death in the bitter weather, at the same time risking the consequences of bastard children or the anger of a farmer’s wife.

⭐⭐⭐ 3 Stars

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