I am unashamedly an historical fiction zealot. There is something about being taken back to a time before my own and a place far away that, to me, is the very essence of fiction. There is an undeniable connection between history and fiction. Narrative is used as both a devise and essential tool in recreating the representations of the past that we understand as history. And sometimes, it’s just a lazy way for me to feel like I’m learning, regardless of the credibility of the tome as historical fact.
And so I embarked on Burial Rites by Hannah Kent. Set in nineteenth century Iceland, Kent’s tale fictionalises the events leading up to the beheading of an accused murderer, Agnes Magnúsdóttir. Agnes is sent to live with a peasant family while awaiting her fate and is visited by a junior priest to whom she shares her tale of woe. Agnes Magnúsdóttir was a real woman and was the last person to be executed in Iceland. Kent’s research is satisfying as fiction and history merge at the border with symbiotic ease.
Kent’s prose is beautiful. She writes both in first person narrative as Agnes and also in the third person for the other characters when she is not in Agnes’ head. This provides the reader with a unique understanding of the motivations and impetus of each of the characters. Further, the Iceland she creates is bewitching as a backdrop and almost becomes a character of its own. When describing the turn of season Kent writes, ‘the wind has lost its teeth’. A simple description but one that resonates deeply and is easily and beautifully understood.
A condemned woman, Agnes’ fate is sealed and while there is hope that she will be saved, her demise is inevitable. A blanket of melancholy wraps around Agnes for the duration of the novel and does not leave her, even after the last page. This melancholy is juxtaposed with a haunting beauty, both for Iceland and the relationships between the characters. An absolute pleasure to read.