Tuesday, March 24, 2015

BURIAL RITES by Hannah Kent

Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites is based on an actual event. It is the fictionalized story of the last person executed in Iceland.

March 13th or 14th, 1828, Icelandic authorities executed Agnes Magnúsdóttir [Magnus’ daughter] for her part in the deaths of Natan Ketilsson and Pétur Jónsson.

Prior to that, the state held Agnes in a rural farm home as she awaited execution.

Burial Rites is the story of Agnes, Assistant Reverend Thorvadur Jónsson, and the farm family holding Agnes.
Agnes tells her story to Reverend Jónsson and to the mother in the family.

Agnes is a special person, a poor servant who can read, write, and knows the Icelandic sagas. She is both used and abused.

Natan Ketilsson took her in, isolated her, took her to bed with him, falsely promised her she would be the mistress of his house, and then insanely abused her. All along, Natan was bedding other women, including the other young woman who lived in Nathan’s house.

Finally, Agnes, the young woman, and a greedy neighbor murdered Natan and a visitor to Natan’s farm.

Burial Rites takes place while Agnes is awaiting execution. Agnes becomes an unpaid servant to the family of the small-time local official who is forced to house her. 

Agnes becomes close to several of the women, even finally winning over the most jealous daughter.

It is hard for me to describe what a special book this is. Burial Rites is simply-written. It is a chronological unfolding of the events with the backstory told in Agnes’ own words.

Agnes’ words are shaded by the perceptions of the people hearing them, and Agnes’ execution, moves them all.

Hannah Kent includes an “Author’s Note” describing her research. She points out that the quotes at the beginnings of chapters are from the actual historical record. Then she talks about how she reinterpreted the story in a different way than some earlier writers had.

At one point in the “Author’s Note,” Hannah writes, “I hope you see this novel as the dark love letter to Iceland I intend it to be.”

I did see the book that way, and I loved it.

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