I started Burial Rites in the anything but quiet carriage on our way to London on Saturday. Set in 1829, it’s based on the case of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last person to be executed in Iceland. Convicted of the murder of Natan Ketilsson and Pétur Jónsson, Agnes is to be lodged until her execution with the family of a District Officer at Kornsá, by cruel coincidence the farm at which she lived briefly as a foster child. Allowed the counsel of a priest to prepare her for death she chooses Tóti, a young assistant Reverend she met briefly years ago whose kindness she remembers. At first furious at what they regard as an imposition, the family very gradually warms to Agnes as she tells her story to Tóti. She is illegitimate but educated. Declared a pauper, she has spent her adulthood as a servant. When she met Natan her future brightened at the prospect of becoming his housekeeper and his lover, perhaps even his wife, but when she arrives at his homestead she finds a young girl, Sigga, also convicted of Natan’s murder, already installed as housekeeper. As Agnes’s story unfolds, both in her head and to Tóti, Natan emerges as a manipulator and sexual predator.
It’s a novel which at times feels claustrophobic with tension. The appalling Icelandic winter, the hugger-mugger conditions of the Kornsá farmstead and the harshness of poverty are starkly described making them all the more vivid. Almost from the start it reminded me of Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace, also based on a true story of a woman convicted of murder who tells her tale to a young man – an alienist as psychiatrists were then called – although in Grace Marks’ case the sentence was commuted from death to life imprisonment on the grounds of insanity.
LIke Alias Grace, Burial Rites is clearly the product of a good deal of research – each of the chapters is introduced with extracts from legal records, correspondence, even poetry – which can sometimes result in leaden fiction, weighed down with too much fact, but Kent succeeds in weaving her findings into a riveting story, slowly engaging her readers’ sympathy for Agnes. In her Author’s Note she says that there are several written accounts of the murder all of which condemn Agnes as an ‘inhumane witch’. By fictionalising the case Kent’s aim was to ‘supply a more ambiguous portrayal of the women’. It’s an excellent first novel – and an object lesson in how very little in life is ever black and white.