Hannah Kent: Burial Rites


The latest addition to my website is Hannah Kent‘s Burial Rites. Though Kent is Australian, this novel is set entirely in Iceland, where Kent spent some time. It tells the story, based on an actual historical incident, of the murder of two men at a remote farm. Three people have been arrested and found guilty of the crime. The story focuses on one of these three, one of the two women, Agnes Magnúsdóttir. Agnes is thirty-four, single, and had been both the servant and lover of Natan Ketilsson, the owner of the farm and one of the two men murdered. Because there was no proper prison in the region, it has been decided that she will stay at the farm of Jón Jónsson, and his wife Margrét. The couple and their two adult daughters are not too happy about this but have to accept it. Agnes is brought to them in poor condition. She has been beaten, not allowed to wash, not been fed or even given anything to drink all day (the party arrives around midnight). Margrét, while opposed to her presence, shows a certain sympathy towards her, though expects her to work , which she does. We follow Agnes’ stay at the farm as well as her story, both in her thoughts as well her recounting of her tale to the priest who is caring for her soul during her last days, Assistant Reverend Thorvardur Jónsson. We gradually learn what really happened but we also learn a lot about Agnes, who has had a hard life. She was illegitimate, disowned by her father and soon abandoned by her mother and has worked as a maid all her life. She is clearly an intelligent, conscientious, knowledgeable and diligent woman and, as Kent intends, we feel a certain amount of sympathy for her and for her plight, particularly when we learn the story of the murders. Kent tells her story very well and Agnes is a fascinating portrayal of a woman facing death. This novel is on the shortlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction.

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