Death in the Snow
The book, Burial Rites, affected me deeply..And I mean deeply. More than any other book I've read in a long, long time.
The story of Agnes Magnusdottir, condemned to death in 1829, is no cliffhanger in the usual sense. I know what happened. It's history. But I had to read right to the end as fast as I could to stay with her, to keep her company, right up till the final page as she was taken to the Executioner's block.
I was transported to a different time, to an unfamiliar and frightening place, yet somehow, a place I knew, perhaps from a dream. A place where men dictated how women should look, and feel, and behave.
I understood Agnes. I was inside her mind, as she is now inside my heart.
The Story of Agnes
The story of Agnes takes place in a world so distant from us that it may as well be on another planet.
It's Iceland in 1829, a society based on subsistence agriculture where the Church relentlessly governs the established codes of moral conduct and those who break these codes are outcasts. The cold is all pervasive, the stark landscape of jagged mountains, inescapable snow and howling winds create an icy gloom in which the beheading of a young woman doesn't seem too out of place.
In a quick trial which consists of being questioned by the District Commissioner, Agnes is found guilty of murdering two men, but this is just the external dialogue. It's the inner thoughts of Agnes that are the appeal of this book. I was captured from her first silent reflections.
She moves in private through the events that resulted in the murders, I wanted to learn more and more as her personal history emerged, I couldn't wait to find out what happened. What lead up to this terrible slaying? Why did it happen, how did it happen and, more urgently, did Agnes actually do it?
Agnes doesn't weep through her story, but I did.
Then I understood that these people did not see me. I was two dead men. I was a burning farm. I was a knife. I was blood.
Agnes at the Jonsson farm
The Claustrophobic Farmhouse
There are no jails in Iceland, Agnes is taken to a farm where she works as a servant until the grim date arrives. In this claustrophobic farmhouse she is pressed in by the icy hatred which typifies the feelings of all the Icelanders. A woman who murders and, as they believe, for monetary gain, is no more than a beast.
Indeed, when Agnes is taken to the isolated steading of Jon Jonsson, she arrives more animal than human after a long confinement in dreadful conditions.
They tie my legs together as they do with the forelegs of horses. It seems that with each passing day I become more like an animal to them, another dull-eyed beast to feed with what can be scraped together and to be kept out of the weather
Margret Jonsson unbends
As the year relentlessly draws out, we understand more about the origins of Agnes and, as she shares the endless back-breaking work with Marget, the farmer's wife, we learn how a cautious affinity can be formed under truly awful conditions. Against her will, Margret begins to unbend towards, even to embrace, the condemned woman.
But it's Agnes's inner monologues which seize you. Silent on the outside, her thoughts run wildly within
Burial Rites by Hannah Kent
Burial Rites braces together Saga and Protestant theology at a time when justice in Iceland was at a crossroads. There had not been an execution in Iceland for 40 years, although the death penalty for witchcraft and sexual laxness in women was still strong in the memory.
Agnes is not portrayed as an object of pity nor even of righteous indignation. This book tries to reach her in a place of terrible loneliness, and it does.
Surprisingly, author Hannah Kent is a young woman herself. Her passionate and angry depiction of the historical account seems to have been torn from someone older.
At 17, Kent was an exchange student in an isolated fishing village in the north of Iceland. It was 2002.
It was there she heard the story of Agnes Magnusdottir and was immediately intrigued. When she returned to Australia the story became the creative component of her PhD.
Ten years of extensive research later, Burial Rites was published. It's superbly written, a masterpiece of tight prose that hits you, like a hail storm
Author Hannah Kent in Iceland
This is a bleak book, a pitiless book
There's no happy ending,
just a story that will haunt you ever after
© 2013 Susanna Duffy