Review of Burial Rites
by Hannah Kent
I first heard the story of Agnes Magnusdóttir on my last trip to Iceland in June. Our host, Helga, arranged a concert for us in the church where two flutists played a dozen songs. Some of the songs were recognizably American, like Home on the Range and Paul Simon’s El Condor Paso, but the others were Icelandic, both modern and folk. The last song was introduced to us as a piece of local history. Just south of Helga’s farm is Vatnsdalur, where in the year 1830 a servant woman, Agnes, was executed for being an accomplice to the murder of two men, Natan Ketilsson (her landlord/lover) and Petur Jonsson (a disreputable sort). The song told her story, and it has now been told again in Burial Rites, a first novel by the young Australian writer Hannah Kent.
The story of Agnes is well-known with Icelanders who, given their saga DNA, pass on stories from generation to generation. There are many non-fiction books, all in Icelandic, about the trial and execution. In 1995 an Icelandic-made movie, Agnes, stirred up controversy about the almost 200-year- old crime, because there were some old timers alive who knew the story through their grandparents, or who were descendents of the victims, accused, or accusers. So while the crime took place in 1830, it was and is still talked about, thought about, and lodged in the national psyche.
Agnes’s guilt was questionable and uncorroborated. The harsh sentence was meted out by the District Commissioner of the area who wanted to make an example of Agnes. He portrayed her as a she-devil, witch, spider, a desperate spinster—turning it into a morality play to keep people in line. To drive home the point, all the farmers in the surrounding area were made to watch the execution. Her head was stuck on a stake, as was the head of Fridrik, the other person accused, and their bodies were buried without Christian ceremony. It must have been horrific, and a collective remorse must have risen afterward, because it was the last time anyone was executed in Iceland for any crime.
Entering into this territory—national, historical, legal, collective memory—is Hannah Kent, who as an exchange student in Iceland in 2003 heard the story of Agnes and couldn’t get it out of her head. Kent poured over all the primary sources of the era, the birth and church records, spoke to Icelanders who were familiar with local lore and imaginatively conjured up the inner drama. She calls it interpretive history. I call it channeling the spirit world.
Kent received an advance of more than $1 million (a jaw-dropping amount for literary fiction), with the book being translated into twenty languages. Hollywood has optioned the movie rights and it’s rumored that Jennifer Lawrence (Yes!) will play Agnes. It is odd to think that this local Icelandic story, nearly two centuries old about “a landless work maid raised on a porridge of moss and poverty,” and known only to the inhabitants of the island or visitors to the Hunavatn district, has gone global. I can’t help wondering what the real Agnes would have thought about this.
The book opens when Agnes arrives at a farm nearby where she will later be executed. She is scuffed and bloody from iron shackles, from men bruising her at will. She is full of lice, flies, and fleas, and smells of stale urine. Sweat and dried blood has oiled her blue dress brown. She is hungry, thirsty, forlorn and condemned to death for murder after a brief trial. She gives new meaning, or maybe old biblical meaning, to the term, wretchedness. Think your hair might smell a bit funky this winter because you haven’t washed it in three days? Meet Agnes. After not bathing for six months, her hair “feels like greasy rope.”
The telling of this tale goes back and forth in time and narrative style, from the farmhouse inhabitants who reluctantly house her (there are no prisons to lock her in), to Agnes in the first person, to Tóti, the young, novice priest confessor she tells her story to. (Quick, call Eddie Redmayne’s agent for this part.) The young reverend is a highly sensitive man who initially tries but fails to keep his professional demeanor and distance. On his way to his first meeting with her, “Unexpectedly, a small thrill flickered through his body. She was only a workmaid, but she was a murderess.” Well, he doesn’t get out much. He lives with his Pabbi, a grim, old school minister, on a desolate farm farther north. Week after week Tóti treks through Iceland’s northern territory in harsh weather to see Agnes. Yes, it’s under the guise of providing spiritual counseling, but we know he is positively smitten by her. At a crucial point, Tóti becomes ill, leaving him bed ridden, dreaming of her, delirious and feverish. This left me wondering: are we supposed to think his illness was self-induced, a neurasthenic in love? Or did Kent find source material of a flu epidemic in the county’s annals?
Since the end of a historical novel is known, the hook has to be in the revelation of the characters. Kent does an excellent job of slowly unveiling the story. She paces it so well that I found myself turning the pages carefully (because it is vivid, lyrical writing and I didn’t want to skim over a single sentence), but also quickly (I had to know what happened and why). Through Agnes’s two listeners, the priest and the farmer’s wife, we learn of the events that led to the day of murder. So what really happened?
Natan happened. He hovers over the book as lover, landlord, ghost, and as victim, madman, cad. He is not much to look at, but he is like no other man Agnes has ever met. He is a progressive guy, an establishment fighter, well-educated, an atheist, a herbalist healer. He takes interest in her intellect, soul, and body. He invites her to live with him. He breaks “the very yolk of my soul,” thinks Agnes, and “he would give me springtime.” This long-awaited-for love comes at age 33 for Agnes, so okay, it deserves high prose. For the first time, she realizes there is something more than the drudgery of poverty and work. Natan’s love gives her “an end to the stifling ordinariness of existence.” And woo-wee, the sex is great, even if it does always take place in the cowshed.
But there is a dark side to Natan (there always is). He has fits of bad temper and cruelty, not to mention a few other women on the side. One of them is The Poet-Rosa (yes, the rival comes with a talent moniker—so not fair). She is a well-known writer of the day who, though married, openly had an affair with Natan and bore a couple of his children. And then there is Sigga, the housekeeper on Natan’s farm, who is young, pretty, fickle and dimwitted. Even though Sigga is drawn to and wants to marry Fridrik, a notorious local thief, Natan takes her whenever he wants, and in one scene, cruelly and flagrantly in front of Agnes in the claustrophobic breath-on-breath living quarters of the badstofa. Agnes stifles her anger in the dark. I was left gurgling with fury toward Natan. Visions of Catherine Zeta-Jones in Chicago growling out that musical number, “He Had It Coming,” danced in my head.
Agnes is not the first woman to have fallen for a bad man and, after mistreatment, acted out furiously. The jails are full of them today. She is not the first person whose story gets twisted and taken out of context: “Everything I said was taken from me and altered until the story wasn’t my own.” That is both old and new. While it may have been a prickly, sanctimonious District Commissioner in northern Iceland in 1829 who accused, vilified, and stereotyped her, today we have the media’s “outrage industry” where snippets of comment are taken out of context, judged quickly, harshly, and go viral before we get the whole story (and then shrugged off, “never mind”).
In the end, we have no idea why or if Agnes killed Natan directly or indirectly. But through Kent’s retelling of the known and the unknown, the real and imagined, we get to know the approximate woman. And she deserves to be known and heard simply because she was once full of life, wholly in love, and crushed by ill fortune. By the close of the book, I was railing: “Free Agnes!” or at least give her the commuted sentence that they gave Sigga.
This is what historical fiction does for the reader: it takes us out of our own time and brings us intimately into the past— and thus we see ourselves on a continuum with all humanity. Yes, it was her life lived in that particular time in that specific place on earth, but we can find common ground and modern parallels no matter how different and distant that other life was. A good historical novel also leaves us with these self-reflective questions: What are our life events? What is our time on earth about? Who do we love?
All photos taken by author at Vatnsnes, and at Glaumbær Farm, a turf musuem in Skagafjordur.