A Sympathetic Ear
I hereby confirm that the criminals, Fridrik Sigurdsson and Agnes Magnusdottir will be executed on Tuesday the 12 January, on a little hill close to the cottage of Ranhola, between the farms Holabak and Sveinsstador.
The aforementioned passage was taken from a letter to the District Officers of Svinavatn from District Commissioner Bjorn Blondal. Also in the same letter, Blondal calmly instructs that:
If it is such that the executions are not possible to carry out on this day due to weather, the next day possible will then be selected, and all the people who have been ordered to attend must do so, as stated above.
Hannah Kent’s debut novel, Burial Rites – short listed for the Stella Prize – is based upon the historical events that took place in Iceland between 1828 and 1830. Agnes Mahnusdottir, Fridrik Sigurdsson and Sigridur Gudmundsdottir were convicted for the gruesome murders of Natan Ketilsson – Agnes’s boss and ‘lover’ – and Petur Jonsson, then burning their bodies in an attempt to hide the crime. Agnes and Fridrik would be the last persons executed in Iceland in 1830, while Sigridur, saved from execution, died serving out her life sentence as a servant a few years later.
Before Agnes’ execution, she was interned with District Officer Jon Jonssons family at Kornsa. The family, composed of Jon, his ailing wife Margaret and their two daughters, Steina and Lauga, are reluctant to take on the job of a murderess and a “whore” and make their reluctance known to Agnes.
The family is then later joined by a young clergyman Toti Jonsson who was chosen by Agnes to assist her in the Christian beliefs to prepare her for death and into the arms of Christ. However, with the Icelandic winter and the small space within the house, Agnes and Toti’s conversations are never private. There are several tense scenes where the Jonsson family listens to Anges’s story, convinced that she is telling lies. When Toti first met Agnes, he was very nervous and unsure how to approach a woman convicted of two brutal murders. Toti does learn to become a better listener of Agnes’s story, convinced that she needs a sympathetic ear rather than be showered in prayers and proverbs. It is through this personal conversation that Agnes discloses her life events, a twisted love triangle, and the night of the murders.
Agnes, while reluctantly accepted by the Jonsson family, begins to be an influential and important person around the farm. Her expertise with medicines, farming, slaughter and cooking win her some favour with Margaret and Steina. However, Lauga never trusts Agnes.
Burial Rites is the culmination of Kent’s ten-years of research into the executions. The research is easily visible: there are the translated documents and letters that begin each chapter, the representations of speech and grammar and the intrinsic detail of Icelandic life through slaughter, harvest, Icelandic rituals, winter and summer. The writing is also impressive, offering engaging detail:
Next are the bones, and the heads. I ask Lauga to empty the tallow pot of gristle and water, but she pretends she cannot hear me and keeps her eye fixed ahead of her. Kristin goes instead. When Steina sidles up to me again, smiling shyly, wondering if there is anything I need doing, I ask her to fill the emptied pot with the bones that cannot be used for anything else. Salt. Barley. Water. Steina and I haul the pot next to the poaching blood sausage, for the marrow to leach into the simmering water, for the salt and heat to prise away all the tenderness from the carcass. She claps her hands when we fix the slopping pot upon the hook and immediately begins to throw more fuel on the fire.
However, there is a disadvantage to Kent’s historical narrative. By beginning each chapter with a translated document, Kent sets the boundaries for the chapter and does not look to go outside the historical documents. This, therefore, makes the novel not so much a challenging read – unless you are like me and struggle with the pronunciation of Icelandic names.
Kent’s novel is also divided into a twin narrative. Agnes’ voice is told in first person, while a discrete third-person narrates over Toti and also the Jonsson family. Although Agnes’ voice does not feature as much as I would like it to as her voice can be the most difficult and most compelling voice – “they say I must die They said that I stole the breath from men, and now they must steal mine.” To me, it seems to be a stylistic choice of her troubled and misunderstood life: “They will not see me. I will not be there.”
Although there are small stylistic problems with Kent’s novel, her deep knowledge and research into the events in her attempt to “supply a more ambiguous portrayal of this woman,” and challenge that Agnes was “an inhuman witch, stirring up murder,” succeeds within her twin narrative. While Burial Rites is a book to challenge the idea of Agnes, it is also a book about a woman who lived with the odds stacked against her, leading the reader to question whether Agnes was guilty or not guilty?