Picador, Pan Macmillan Australia
The story: Agnes Magnúsdóttir, a young Icelandic woman is destined for execution for murdering two men in 1829. The story of exactly what happened leading up to the night of the murders is told in a few ways – official letters, short poems, witness testimonials, and then Agnes’ viewpoint as well as an omniscient narrator. This allows us to empathise with Agnes but also understand the other characters as well. The daily life of those living on farms in Iceland, the weather and the vastness of the land all contribute to the backdrop of Agnes’ story.
The highlights: I was drawn in by the storytelling, by the action in the present as well as Agnes’ recollections, told to the young Assistant Reverend sent to save her soul before her death. Hannah Kent shows us Agnes the murderer at the beginning of the novel, and slowly, slowly, we gain empathy for Agnes as we hear her childhood story of abandonment and her work history on many different farms in Iceland. The past and present weave beautifully together – there isn’t any sense of awkward dialogue or intrusive backstory.
This book does not offer any hope or fairytale ending. I found it a compelling read because I wanted to know Agnes’ story, and I wanted to know the truth of what happened on the night of the murders, even though Agnes believes there’s ‘no such thing as truth.’ She told Reverend Tóti, ‘I’ve told the truth and you can see for yourself how it has served me.’
Hannah Kent calls her book ‘a dark love letter to Iceland’. I found the descriptions of Iceland and its people really intriguing – the weather and the distance between farms – no wonder Agnes told Magrét, ‘Loneliness threatened to bite you at every turn.’
I listened to Hannah present at the Emerging Writers Festival in Melbourne last year. She was part of a panel presenting their top five tips for writing. Her account from her blog can be found here. Love, love, love all her tips – that’s why I bought Burial Rites that day. I knew a writer with so much perception would be worth reading!