‘They said I must die. They said that I stole the breath from men, and now they must steal mine.’
Hannah Kent’s debut novel, Burial Rites, tells the true story of the last person executed in Iceland – Agnes. Along with Sigga and Fridrik, Agnes was convicted of the murder of two men – Natan and Petur. Due to Iceland’s lack of prisons, Agnes is sent to a remote farm to spend her last days ahead of her execution in servitude to the family who resides there. Initially the family dread her presence, as does the priest she calls for however, as the story progresses Agnes begins to capture the respect of the people around her. Unfortunately, this was not enough to save her from her ultimate demise.
Like His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet – Kent weaves in historical documents, letters, accounts and alternative narrators to her story. Kent’s use of flitting back and forth between first and third person was incredibly skilful and had the desired effect of allowing the reader to see the effects of Agnes’ presence to those around her. The pace of the novel was surprisingly engaging and one that seasoned authors struggle with.
Perhaps the most interesting character within this book was that of the country – Iceland. The reader is left in no doubt that Iceland is the setting of this story by the subtle yet poignant references to the weather, nature and the customs of the remote village in which Agnes’ last few weeks are spent.
Kent also strived to emphasise how well-educated Agnes was. This Agnes opines on when she considers her fate as against that of her fellow murderer – Sigga – ‘they see I’ve got a head on my shoulders, and believe a thinking woman cannot be trusted. Believe there’s no room for innocence’ Sigga is subsequently pardoned and one can’t ignore this sentiment in light of that fact.
Throughout reading this novel, I was hoping we would stumble upon a hidden nugget of information to absolve Agnes of liability. That she was, in fact, wrongly convicted. The story leaves it in the balance. One for the reader to consider. For me, whilst she was in fact guilty of ending a life – it was a life of one whom she loved – a life that required ending at the time it was within her gift to do so. Murderer? Perhaps not.
Recommended for: crime fiction / non-fiction lovers. If you have read this book or like the sound of it you would enjoy His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet
Favourite quotes: ‘Blind is a man without a book’
Thanks for reading – I hope you enjoyed it!