Yet again a book has sent me falling down a rabbit hole. I am fascinated, engrossed, compelled to find out more. More about Agnes Magnusdottir, the last woman to be executed in Iceland in 1830. And here I am google imaging her, scouring Wikipedia, and historical records in search for an image, a grainy photo, a look at her handwriting or court records, or something more to put a face to the main character in Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites.
So powerful is this debut novel, that I feel as though I know Agnes’ intimate and innermost thoughts, and at the time of reading I felt the icy chill of the inhospitable country, the heartbreak, the indignity and isolation.
Of course I love a good piece of historical fact-ion; a reimagining of true events that occurred over 180 years ago. After visiting Iceland as a mere 17 year old, Hannah Kent was inspired to research and interpret the life and execution of Agnes, who was sentenced to death for her part in the gory murder of two men on a desolate farm.
While awaiting execution, Agnes was housed in the rural home of an official, Jon Jonsson, and his wife and daughters. In Kent’s novel, the family is horrified to have a murderer in their midst, and are scared and disgusted at times by her presence. However, her sheer human-ness and vulnerability fascinates Jonsson’s wife Margret, and soon the family are conflicted by an unavoidable sympathy, and a begrudging like for Agnes the woman.
There are moments in this book that are truly breathtaking. Details of the brutal murder emerge gradually, as do the hardships of Agnes entire life. The end will have you utterly convinced that Kent was there, 183 years ago on that chilly hillside. And a simple gesture made towards Agnes in her final hours will have you sobbing for its simple and divine meaning.
Kent spent much of her life planning and researching what is a remarkable and moving novel. I am envious of writers like her: people who have the ability to pick away at facts, and find their own interpretation of a story. But to tell that story with such truisms and authenticity that it is hard to dispute the reality of it. So Hannah, I am supremely jealous of your talent, but moreover grateful that you have slaved away to perfect and deliver such a gem to hungry readers like me!
In Short: As crisp and breathtaking as the chilly landscape of Iceland.
Picture above: The site of the last execution in Iceland, where Agnes was beheaded.
Photo Credit: http://bit.ly/1hFAO8V