Burial Rites by Hannah Kent is a fiction novel based on fact about the last woman to be executed in Iceland. After a lengthy time used for appeals, she was executed in 1828. There are no real surprises in the book as the case and result are a matter of historical record. The value of the book is in the character portrayals Kent provides. “A Note on Icelandic Names and Pronunciation” followed by a map prepares the reader for a presentation that is extremely well-researched. A reader will be able to make sense of the meaning in dialogues between main characters without the pronunciation guide but it is nice to have. Letters between government officials and religious functionaries are written in a complex style reflecting the times. Such letters written in the present time would be considered verbose and overly polite. Again, this gives the reader a sense of research well done.
Agnes ( the main character), Sigridur (accomplice and sometimes rival of Agnes) and Fridrik (sometimes thief) killed Natan and Petur. No surprises here. The three were convicted of the crime of murder and sentenced to death. Much as in the present day, the convictions were referred to higher courts on appeal. The three murderers were confined in separate locations but not in jails or prisons familiar to the present-day reader. Instead, they were assigned to confinement in homes of officials based on their earlier employment or residency. This was not always welcomed by the officials and their families but it was a duty that could not be refused by local officials. This novel focuses on the family which had the responsibility for the confinement of Agnes.
There seems to have been a lot of miserable childhoods in Iceland during this period. Children lost parents perhaps through death. Parents lost children through death or abandonment when the parents felt unable to economically support them. Children served periods of indenture which were followed by further periods of indenture. They were employed as servants and/or housekeepers. Agnes knew her mother but was abandoned at about the age of three. As she is facing imminent execution, she is over thirty years old and has worked as a servant or housekeeper in more than fifteen locations. This forced labor is not quite slavery. That is why Agnes served in so many locations. If a person was not in debt, the person was free to seek better conditions of employment. Based on the amount of work a person had to do; there was little time to seek better conditions.
Agnes fell in love with Natan. It was a long process. Natan noticed her and was impressed with her level of literacy. Agnes did not know of or suspect Natan’s serious character flaws. Natan was a people manipulator. He played with them and provoked them for his amusement, not necessarily for any material gain. This did not become apparent until Agnes had moved into Natan’s home and was promised the job of housekeeper, a job which implied sexual duties along with the more mundane boot polishing. But Natan had another servant, Sigridur. She believed that Agnes would be employed as a servant and she, Sigridur, would take over the role requiring total service. So, we have the complete and open jealousy between the two women. As for Natan, he intends to, and does, have relations with both as he promises each of them the role of housekeeper. So how did the two become close enough to be convicted accomplices in the murder of Natan? The answer to that might be the only surprise, or spoiler, in the novel.
All of this is the background to the main story of the novel. Agnes is confined with an official and his family at Kornsa. The main story is how she interacts with the family as she awaits either execution or pardon. For most of the novel, she is resigned to her fate of execution. She is with the family because she has requested the spiritual guidance of Assistant Reverend Thorvardur (later known as Reverend Toti). She had the right to request a church person of her choice to help prepare her for her meeting with God. Toti is not yet a full reverend; he is very young and has little confidence in himself. But he has been given the duty of frequent contact with Agnes to prepare her for her fate.
Agnes does not find it easy to tell her full story to Toti; she is much older than him. She feels closer to Margret, wife of official Jon, and the mother of daughters Lauga and Steina. Marget is closer in age to Agnes and throughout the novel feels more and more empathy for Agnes. Daughter Lauga despises Agnes and frequently expresses her disgust with having Agnes in the house. Daughter Steina thinks Agnes is interesting and steals time away from chores to talk to Agnes whenever possible. This displeases her father who fears negative influence on the entire family.
This is a great, brilliant novel for a variety of reasons. There is the depiction of language. There is the depiction of history. There is the depiction of the difficulties of daily life such as this:
The family with Margret was not always as poverty stricken as they were when Agnes joined them. In years past their house, constructed from either mud, clay, or a composite had walls that did not crumble. Earlier, they were reinforced by planks of wood. But when the family fell on hard times, Jon had stripped the walls and sold for much-needed money to support the family. This type of cultural and economic awareness, supported by research, make this a valuable novel.
For the eclectic reader, one who invites surprise, this is a great novel.