It’s a sad story that doesn’t make you miserable. Quite the contrary. I would even add it to the list of sad things that bring pleasure, up there with paintings by Edward Hopper and Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante défunte.
Hannah Kent’s debut novel Burial Rites uncovers the life of Agnes, a murderess, sentenced to death in Iceland in the early 19th century. The illegitimate daughter of a poor servant, who abandoned her when she was a child, Agnes also enters a precarious life of service. The reader learns of Agnes’s early years in retrospect and interspersed with the novel’s present day, where the lack of prison facilities in sparsely populated Iceland means Agnes is sent to live with a local official and his family until her execution. The wife, Margrét, and two daughters, Lauga and Steina, take Agnes in as a matter of duty but grapple with their emotions, ranging from fear to fascination. During this time, Agnes is required to have her soul cleansed by the apprentice Reverend Tóti in preparation for her death, hence the title.
Despite the bleak setting, taking the reader from the short days of autumn to the even shorter days of winter, in a world where life is hard and death often brutal, this is a heartening tale, full of richly drawn characters and their inner journeys. The family and the reverend grow from their interactions with Agnes. As they share the harsh quotidian of rural life, Margrét and Agnes develop a sisterly bond. Reverend Tóti soon realises that the fire and brimstone approach would never work with Agnes, who knows her scriptures as well as he does, and learns the power of listening and that much of what he thought was true was riddled with misjudgements and superstition.
While this book was first promoted as a kind of Scandinavian crime novel, the genre of historical fiction might be more accurate. This is based on the true story of the Illugastđir murders, with attention paid to the documents of record at the time and the detail of life among the Icelanders of that region. This includes the interesting fact that Iceland had high levels of literacy even in the early 19th century.
Some readers have compared this to Margaret Attwood’s Alias Grace, whose fictional account of a true life murderess is set in Victorian Canada. In addition to the shared subject matter, both writers employ multiple narrators, where the first person account from the murderess stands in contrast to an omniscient third-person narrator, alongside other voices, such as those of poets and authors of official documents. Attwood’s use of this technique appears more forced and aesthetic, arguably pretentious in places with some of its textual choices. Kent’s retelling of an historical crime is more substance over style, a naturalism fitting the events and their time. Common to both novels is an awareness of the suffering of women for their intelligence. Attwood’s Grace conceals her intelligence to help her gain a pardon, while Kent’s Agnes is judged by officials as a clever woman thus capable of evil. I accept these depictions as true of their time (and to a lesser extent true today) – a sad truth, the type of sadness that is not pleasurable. As this point serves as a minor theme, the Kent book is nevertheless worth losing oneself in.