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Wintry retribution

29 November 2013

Sarah Meyrick reads a story based on a true case in 19th-century Iceland


Burial Rites
Hannah Kent
Picador £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.70 (Use code CT205 )

THE last public execution in Iceland took place in 1829. Agnes Magnúsdóttir, her fellow maidservant Sigrídur Sigga Gudmundsdóttir, and Fridrik Sigurdsson, the son of a local farmer, were convicted of the brutal murders of Natan Ketilsson and a visiting neighbour on Ketilsson's isolated farm in a remote part of northern Iceland. In the event, Sigga was pardoned, but Agnes and Fridrik were beheaded. Today, visitors to the National Museum in Reykjavik can see the axe that was specially commissioned.

In Burial Rites, Hannah Kent, a young Australian writer, has re-constructed Agnes's life and the months preceding her death. At this time there were no prisons in Iceland, and justice was dispensed by distant Denmark. So, for the year or so before the execution, Agnes was billeted for the winter at a farm where she had spent part of her childhood, closely guarded by the farmer's wife and two daugh-ters, regarded with suspicion and fear by family and neighbours alike.

Over the winter, Agnes's story gradually unfolds, partly as told to the inexperienced but compassionate assistant priest Thorvadur "Tóti" Jónsson, who is charged with preparing Agnes to meet her Maker. But this is a world where there is no privacy; so dominated by the weather is life that people huddle together for warmth, and can be stranded, for days, weeks, or even months, trapped by the snow and ice. So, as confidences are shared by the different characters, the layers of Agnes's story become part of the fabric of the household, echoing the long storytelling tradition of the Icelandic sagas.

This novel is a spellbinding story, compellingly told. The author's use of language to paint the bleak landscape is so powerful that the chill seeps into the reader's bones. The claustrophobia of the relentless winter, the hand-to-mouth existence eked out in such an unforgiving terrain, and the wretchedness of Agnes's life are all vividly brought to life.

Of course, we know the ending; indeed, Kent includes transcripts of official documents in her text. None the less, this does not lessen the tension, and it is hard not to cling to the futile hope that, somehow, Agnes will escape her fate. A beautiful, moving, and impressive début from an author to watch.

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