Spoiler Alert, I guess.
The jagged landscape of Iceland’s coasts juxtaposed with its lush green interior always appealed to me. Though I don’t know much about the history, government or culture of the country it’s sheer beauty makes it a place I’d like to see with my own eyes. Which leads me to the next challenge: a Book Set in a Country You’d Like to Visit. (2018 Reading Challenge)
Admittedly for all the natural beauty Iceland has, there’s also a desolation that seems to go with it. Many of the pictures I see show no signs of civilization. Simply a vast amount of unforgiving landscape with no roads or shelter. I can only imagine the intensity of the seclusion in 1828 which lacked immediate communication with the outside world and travel was done on foot or horseback.
In her debut novel, Burial Rites, Australian author Hannah Kent captures that isolation in this fictionalized account of the last few years of Agnes Magnusditter’s life. As the book jacket, wiki page and any other site that comes up when you google her name will tell you, Agnes (along with a man named Fridirik Sigurdsson) were the last people sentenced to death and executed in Iceland, hence the questionable spoiler alert warning. The event was traumatic enough that Agnes is still haunts her countrymen almost two hundred years later. Just last year, a mock trial was set up to retry the case, finding that she would have been sentenced to fourteen years rather than death. Numerous books have been written and Jennifer Lawrence is attached to star in an adaptation of Burial Rites. While the memory of her hovers in Iceland’s shared history, Agnes the woman remains mysterious and unknowable. But Kent does her best as she imagines Agnes back to life, giving her agency and purpose.
Sentenced to die in northern Iceland where there are no nearby prisons, Agnes is foisted upon the Jonsson family, who’s patriarch, Jon serves as a local official. Though eager to do his duty, Jon is understandably hesitant to allow a murderess into the home with his wife and daughters. His sickly and stern wife Margret is incensed by what she considers and insult as is her youngest daughter Lauga, who fears that proximity to Agnes will ruin her chances for marriage. While his oldest daughter, Steina initially fights Agnes’ internment, she’s the first to let down her defenses. Agnes requests a young assistant priest named Toti, to act as her spiritual guide in preparation for her impending death. The shifting relationships between the prisoner, her reluctant jailors and the unqualified chaplain drive the story to its inevitable conclusion.
A bit of a mystery plays out, more in Agnes’ motives for the killings rather than a did she/didn’t she. Though Kent never excuses Agnes, she gives her a humanity we don’t usually like to see in our murderers. I was left with a satisfying ambiguity that comes from reading well developed characters who are neither saints or monsters. Even though the book jacket made clear Agnes’ fate, I found myself dreading the end, knowing there wouldn’t be a last-minute reprieve and unsure of whether she deserved one.