Iceland's last executions for murder took place on January 12, 1830--beheading, as prescribed by Danish law. One of them was a young woman, Agnes Magnusdottir. Burial Rites, Hannah Kent's debut novel, renders Agnes's unforgettable and woeful story brilliantly. Throughout, Kent juxtaposes rich, imagistic prose with dry, insensate excerpts from official documents about the case.
Kent gives us two first-person narrators: Agnes and the young, inexperienced Reverend Toti, assigned to save her soul before her execution.
Iceland had no prisons at the time; Agnes, awaiting execution, is housed in the barn of a God-loving family who beat her mercilessly, kept in a lightless room filled with her own fetid breath and the stench from the chamberpot. Then she's moved to a different family's stark and cold cottage--to them, she "looked like a new corpse, fresh dug from the dirt." Even the wife, an old crone, Margret, takes pity on her.
Now able to work outside at harvest, to see the sky, Agnes feels better. Reverend Toti visits often and, story by story, she tells him about her wretched life: abandoned as a child, maid to families who treated her like a slave. The story behind the crime becomes clearer. Agnes, another maid (later pardoned) and Natan, a man she had feelings for, are convicted of stealing from, then killing, two men and burning down the barn where the crime took place. Kent keeps Agnes's guilt ambiguous.
Burial Rites is a deeply emotional, gripping story. A cross between the grim, moorish atmosphere of Wuthering Heights and the cold, religiously-infested repression of a Bergman film, Kent's novel emerges alive, triumphant and sublimely poetic. --Tom Lavoie