Burial Rites by Hannah Kent
Published by Picador
27th February 2014
Northern Iceland, 1829.
A woman condemned to death for murdering her lover.
A family forced to take her in.
A priest tasked with absolving her.
But all is not as it seems, and time is running out: winter is coming, and with it the execution date.
Only she can know the truth. This is Agnes's story.
They said I must die. They said that I stole the breath from men, and now they must steal mine. I imagine, then, that we are all candle flames, greasy-bright, fluttering in the darkness and the howl of the wind, and in the stillness of the room I hear footsteps, awful coming footsteps, coming to blow me out and send my life up away from me in a grey wreath of smoke. I will vanish into the air and the night. They will blow us all out, one by one, until it is only their own light by which they see themselves. Where will I be then?
Sometimes I think I see it again, the farm, burning in the dark. Sometimes I can feel the ache of winter in my lungs, and I think I see the flames mirrored in the ocean, the water so strange, so flickered with light. There was a moment during that night when I looked back. I looked back to watch the fire, and if I lick my skin I can still taste the salt. The smoke.
It wasn't always so cold.
I hear footsteps.
Hannah Kent's debut novel Burial Rites is a moving tale of the last person executed in Iceland in 1829, one Agnes Magnusdottir. She was executed for her role in killing two men, Natan Keilsson and Petur Jonsson along with Fridrik Sigurdsson; a further person, Sigridur Gudmundsdottir was later spared execution. Sent to live with the family of a district officer until her execution date is set, this is the story of one woman, and the people whose lives she touches, both past and present. From being placed with a family who initially are horrified to house her, she eventually becomes one of the family, and through her story we learn of the real events of the 13th and 14th of March 1828 as she recites her history to the young Assistant Reverend Throvardur Jonsson.
This is a warm tale even though it is set for the most part in the depths of a cold Icelandic winter. Great detail is placed by Hannah Kent on getting the atmosphere and the settings right for this historical tale, and, being no expert, I think she has done a fine job. This is an easy read, but a page-tuner none-the-less. A cracking debut and I'm looking forward to what Hannah Kent is going to produce next.