Burial Rites (Back Bay Books, 311 pages, $15) is a fictional reimagining of the life of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, a farmhand who awaits execution for murdering her employer in 19th-century Iceland.
The story is well-known in Iceland, but the back of Hannah Kent's debut also gives away the end: Agnes was the last person publicly beheaded in the volcanic island nation. The tension in Kent's novel doesn't revolve around whether Agnes was absolved, but rather whether she actually committed the crime for which she was executed. Like other historical fiction, Burial Rites fills in the details, giving the characters some color and chronicling Agnes' inner struggle as she hurtles toward the ax blade.
In her endnotes, Kent says she was inspired to write Burial Rites after spending time as an exchange student in Iceland as a teenager. Much like Agnes, Kent found solace in times of loneliness in the beauty of Iceland's landscape. The source material was gleaned from local records and lore, with passages taken from letters and poems written by and about Agnes as she awaited execution on a farm called Kornsá. The book begins there, as Agnes experiences a reawakening as a poet who shows defiance to her fate. "It is already a fine day outside," she writes. "The grass is wet from a night rain, and the blades look bright in the light of the rising sun. There is a brisk wind and it blows ripples across the puddles in the yard. I notice the small things, now."
Kent's picture of Iceland at the time includes gritty details of farm life—families slept in a single room and went weeks without food or medicine because of bad weather. (In the postscript, she explains that she left out the fact that farm families stored their own urine for its ammonia.) Kent shows the bleakness of the climate and the fragility of human life at the time, even for those not condemned to execution.
Each chapter is introduced with a historical document, translated and adapted from the originals, some in the form of poems written by Agnes. The story bounces between the perspectives of the family that takes in Agnes in her last days, to the clergyman who gives her spiritual guidance, to Agnes herself. Kent effectively shows how those around Agnes come to understand the resilience of the human spirit through her.
Toward the end of the book, the family that once spurned Agnes comes to understand the truth behind her crime and brings her into their fold, even dressing Agnes in their best clothes to help her face death with dignity. Their last moments together are heartbreaking.
I felt as nauseated as Agnes in the moments leading up to her execution; the details of the murder are harrowing, but the fact that she had to face the chopping block is, regardless, absolutely tragic.
GO: Hannah Kent appears at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651, on Friday, April 18. 7:30 pm. Free.