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9781742612829I’d read the rave reviews of this novel prior to buying it. I knew that it had won the inaugural Writing Australia Unpublished Manuscript Award, that it had been sold in 18 different countries and that it had sparked a bidding war for the movie rights. I approached it hoping I’d love it, but fearing I wouldn’t — sometimes, I feel like the sole person on the planet that a book has not charmed …

No need to worry with this novel: I felt desolate as I finished it, and I love it when a book leaves me feeling like that.

Hannah Kent had spent a year in Iceland as an eighteen-year-old exchange student — that alone deserves respect! During her exchange, she learned the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last person executed in Iceland. The story stayed with her and, years later, after finishing her Creative Arts degree, Agnes’ story became the subject of her doctorate. She then turned her meticulous research into this remarkable novel about a flawed woman awaiting her death.

The story begins in March 1829, with Agnes already a convicted murderess:

‘There are times when I wonder whether I’m not already dead. This is no life; waiting in darkness, in silence, in a room so squalid I have forgotten the smell of fresh air.’

While she awaits her execution, Agnes is sent to live and work with the Jónsson family on their farm in northern Iceland. The Jónsson’s had no part in the decision and resent being forced to share their home with a murderess. The Assistant Reverend Thorvardur (Tóti) Jónsson, who has been assigned as Agnes’ spiritual advisor and to ‘bring this condemned woman to the Lord’, also questions his decision to accept the post:

‘She was only a workmaid, but she was a murderess. She had killed two men. Slaughtered them like animals. He silently mouthed the word to himself. Murderess. Morðingi. It slipped through his mouth like milk.’

At first, Agnes keeps to herself, vowing to ‘… hold what I am inside, and keep my hands tight around all the things I have seen and heard, and felt.’ But as she lives and works with the Jónsson family on their farm, sharing their ‘badstofa’ each night, cooking, scything, knitting by the fire, she tastes a normal life and begins to bond with the family. She eventually opens up to Reverend Tóti, telling her life story.

Kent never lets the reader forget Agnes’ impending execution — its shadow hovers over the narrative. Descriptions of daily life on the Jónsson’s farm are punctuated by official letters and documents (translated from the Icelandic) that discuss, for example, the cost of the execution axe and what its future use might be after the executions.

Kent outlines the records she has accessed and translated in the Author Notes at the end of the book: Icelandic ministerial records, parish archives, censuses, as well as conversations with locals. The facts of this story, even without the fiction, are striking and tragic – illegitimacy, maternal abandonment, servitude, a double murder, and an execution.

The prose is stunning, especially the words written in first person as Agnes’ own:

‘How can I say what it was like to breathe again? I felt newborn. I staggered in the light of the world and took deep gulps of fresh sea air. It was late in the day: the wet mouth of the afternoon was full on my face. My soul blossomed in that brief moment as they led me out of doors. I fell, my skirts in the mud, and I turned my face upwards as if in prayer. I could have wept from the relief of light.’

Detail of nineteenth century life in Iceland soaks the writing – fires of dried dung; window panes of dried sheep’s bladders; porridge made of moss; the smell of pee in the chamber pots each morning; and the powerful image of the bodies of a mother and a baby lying throughout the winter in a storehouse, on a pile of salted fish, waiting for the ground to thaw enough to bury them.

There’s also the arresting descriptions of the landscape and the feeling of cold:

‘I’ve been half-frozen for so long, it is as though the winter has set up home in my marrow.’

‘The world has stopped snowing, stopped moving; the clouds hang still in the air like dead bodies.’

From the beginning, the reader knows how this book is going to end. The impetus to read on comes from wanting to learn more about this aloof servant-girl who has committed murder. Kent has not portrayed her as an innocent victim, nor does she show her as a villain …

The final chapters, as the family and Agnes prepare for her execution, are compelling reading. The ending is as heart-wrenching as if the reader was there with Agnes and Tóti on the icy hill as they wait:

‘”Here.” A hand takes my arm and I am lifted into the air. The sky comes closer and for a moment I am going to collide with the clouds, but then I see, they have put me on a horse, and like a corpse they are going to take me to the grave, like a dead woman they will bury me in the earth, picket me like stone.’

Favourite Character:

Tóti, the Assistant Reverend, who, against his better judgement, accepts the post as Agnes’ spiritual advisor, and who sees the woman behind the crime and stays with her to the end.

‘Agnes? Agnes? I am here. I am with you.’

Favourite Scene:

I loved the final scenes. In particular, the poignant scene where Margrét Jónsson, who had initially resented Agnes intrusion into her home, prepares the clothes that Agnes will wear to her execution. Margrét collects her own embroidered garments, her best clothes, and lays them on the bed for Agnes, then turns to Lauga, her daughter, who had always treated Agnes as a criminal:

‘“Your brooch,” she said. Lauga looked up, her mouth falling open. Then, after a moment’s hesitation, she got off the bed and bent to the floor. She slowly handed her mother the clasp and sat back down, blinking away tears. Margrét turned, placed the silver brooch on the bodice spread out over the bed, and picked up her knitting.’

For me, this scene shows how much the Jónsson family had come to embrace Agnes — giving her their best clothes, their valued jewellery. I wonder what happened to them afterwards — life could never have been the same.

Favourite Quote:

There are too many — I could quote something every time Agnes speaks — but I’ll choose this one, the plaintive cry of a woman about to be executed:

 ‘Tóti,’ she said in a panicked voice. ‘Tóti, I don’t think I’m ready.’

 

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent, from Picador, $32.99. 

This is another review for the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge 2013.

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'The Sisters' Song' is coming in January 2018.


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