Thursday 29 September 2016

A dark, poetic and exhilarating tale of the final execution in Iceland

Catherine Taylor

Published 31/05/2015 | 02:30

Burial Rites
Burial Rites

The author, who has researched with utmost scrupulousness this spare, disquieting first novel about the last execution to occur in Iceland, describes it as a "dark love letter" to the country. Dark it certainly is, with a sombre foreboding so thick it is almost tangible.

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June 1829 and Agnes Magnúsdóttir, alongside her fellow maidservant, Sigrídur Sigga Gudmundsdóttir, and Fridrik Sigurdsson, the son of a local farmer, have been convicted of the brutal murders of legendary healer Natan Ketilsson and a visiting neighbour. The two men had multiple stab wounds; Natan's remote farmhouse was torched to cover the crime. Although Sigrídur was later pardoned, Fridrik and Agnes faced death by beheading.

Kent excavates the final months of Agnes's life, pieced intricately together from historical records. The result is a story of swirling sagas, poetry, bitterness, claustrophobia, the adversity of the seasons, and of almost existential loneliness.

As part of preparation for their execution, the convicted were billeted on upright Christian families in croft dwellings around north-western Iceland. Following a year in filthy isolation, Agnes is sent to District Officer Jón Jónsson, his translucent yet iron-willed wife Margrét, and their daughters, haughty Lauga and impulsive, warm Steina. Agnes is neither the contrite nor witch-like figure the family expected: bedraggled, reserved, but with presence.

The seasons pass, beautifully observed by Kent, and Agnes haltingly relays her past; her illegitimacy, poverty, intelligence, and eventually her actual part in that dreadful night of killing and arson. An inexperienced but compassionate reverend, Thorvadur Tóti Jónsson, is Agnes's requested intercessor, their whispered communication leading to a strong affinity.

Through the long countdown towards - and too-swift realisation of - Agnes's fate, it is Kent's heart-racing imagery that lingers: the violent green of the northern lights; the "wild screaming of snow"; the porous landscape of lava, moss and water.

Kent portrays the harsh existence of these rural, highly literate people with exactitude; and even the bleakness of Agnes's end, its gut-churning fear, holds an exhilaration that borders on the sublime.

Historical fiction

Burial Rites

Hannah Kent

Picador, pbk, £12.99, 256pp

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