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Burial Rites - Book of the Month

by Hannah Kent

In June 1829, in a remote area of Iceland, Agnes Magnúsdóttir, alongside her fellow maidservant, Sigga Gudmundsdóttir, and Fridrik Sigurdsson, a local farmer’s son, were convicted of the brutal murders of a local healer Natan Ketilsson and a visiting neighbour Pétur Jónsson. The two men had multiple stab wounds and Natan’s remote farmhouse was set alight to cover the crime. Sigrídur was later pardoned but Fridrik and Agnes were sentenced to death by beheading. BURIAL RITES tells Agnes’s version of the story.

As there were no prisons for women, Agnes is condemned to spend a year of hard labour while awaiting execution. She is sent to live on the family farm of the District Commissioner Jón Jónsson. The Jónsson’s; mother, father and two daughters, are good Christians and the hope is that while living with them their piety will rub off and Agnes will show some repentance. Initially, the family is horrified to have this half-starved, bedraggled, murderer in its midst, especially as Jón is often away and the women are left to deal with Agnes on their own. Bit by bit, Agnes opens up to a visiting young preacher who she remembers from her past and reveals to him intimate details of her life and her part in the heinous crimes of which she is accused. Due to the layout of Icelandic homes at this time (the entire household would sleep in a room known as the badstofa) the other members of the family couldn’t avoid being privy to Agnes’s saga, which unravels like the ball of wool from the knitting that she is constantly crafting. Who wouldn’t be moved by her confessions of illegitimacy, poverty and hardship and her true relationship with the sorcerer-like Natan Ketilsson?

In BURIAL RITES Hannah Kent has painted a beautiful picture of the harshest of lives in a most unforgiving but magnificent environment.

Read our interview with Hannah Kent.

Published by Picador – 368pp

Irene Haynes

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