Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Set against Iceland’s stark landscape, Hannah Kent brings to vivid life the story of Agnes, who, charged with the brutal murder of her former master in 1828, is sent to an isolated farm to await execution.

Horrified at the prospect of housing a convicted murderer, the family at first avoids Agnes. Only Tóti, a priest Agnes has mysteriously chosen to be her spiritual guardian, seeks to understand her. But as Agnes’s death looms, the farmer’s wife and their daughters learn there is another side to the sensational story they’ve heard.

Riveting and rich with lyricism, BURIAL RITES evokes a dramatic existence in a distant time and place, and asks the question, how can one woman hope to endure when her life depends upon the stories told by others?

Yesterday I gave you a link in Monday’s Muddle to a great review of this book that sent me straight to the library to get it. I read it over the weekend. Excellent tale! Vivid writing! My first book with Iceland as a setting. Brutal is all I can say. Cold, stark, primitive. I can’t imagine living like the people in this book lived. Written in first and third person narrative.

Agnes was the last person to be put to death in Iceland. She was beheaded on January 12th, 1830 along with another young man. Not much is really known, this long after, of the details or of Agnes herself, but Ms. Kent does a nice job of filling in the blanks with ‘what might have been’.  She includes a map of the region and a small pronunciation guide to help with the names of people and places. I found that very helpful!

I was struck with the ‘religiousness’ of the people and yet how cruel they were to Agnes. It was disturbing to me. The young priest sent to ‘bring her back to God’ was reprimanded for showing her grace and kindness…

“She seems sincere,” Toti said.
“I can tell you that she is not. You must apply the Lord’s word to her as a whip to a hard-mouthed horse. You will not get anywhere otherwise.”

As a former redhead, before I turned gray, I had to laugh at this…

“After recording his confession, I was of the unwavering opinion that his was an intransigent character. His appearance excited in me strong suspicions of that order: he is freckle-faced and – I beg your pardon, Reverend – red-headed, a sign of a treacherous nature.”

Both of those statements were made by the District Commissioner, sort of like the sheriff I suppose in that region.

Even though this book has beautiful language and descriptions it left me feeling restless all evening when I finished it. The story really gets to you. Really brings Agnes to life in your minds eye. It left me crying. You should read it.

Prologue

They said I must die. They said that I stole the breath from men, and now they must steal mine. I imagine, then, that we are all candle flames, greasy-bright, fluttering in the darkness and the howl of the wind, and in the stillness of the room I hear footsteps, awful coming footsteps, coming to blow me out and send my life up away from me in a gray wreath of smoke. I will vanish into the air and the night. They will blow us all out, one by one, until it is only their own light by which they see themselves. Where will I be then?
  Sometimes I think I see it again, the farm, burning in the dark. Sometimes I can feel the ache of winter in my lungs, and I think I see the flames mirrored in the ocean, the water so strange, so flickered with light. There was a moment during that night when I looked back. I looked back to watch the fire, and if I lick my skin I can still taste the salt. The smoke.
  It wasn’t always so cold.
  I hear footsteps.

Quotes:
‘At Hvammur, during the trial, they plucked at my words like birds. Dreadful birds, dressed in red with breasts of silver buttons, and cocked heads and sharp mouths, looking for guilt like berries on a bush.’

‘It was late afternoon and the light was fading across the hayfields, eased out of the sky by low clouds gathering in the east. Patches of old snow upon the mountain ridge looked by turns dull and gray, and then, as the clouds shifted, a startling white. Summer birds darted across the hayfields to catch the insects that quavered above them and the querulous bleats of sheep could be heard, as young boys drove them down the valley towards the farmsteads.’

Peggy Ann