Burial Rites by Hannah Kent is one of those books that comes along every few years and reminds you why you started to read books in the first place. It’s a great story, reminiscent of the great Icelandic sagas. It is based on the true story of Agnes, the last woman to be hanged in Iceland and the events that led up to her death.
Agnes is a mystery, spoken of as if she is a mythical creature by the locals, and as a base beast by the men who guard her. She is accused of a horrific murder along with two other people, and they are separated after an incident in prison. All this is heresy, we readers are given only sparse details as to the big events that take place and the focus is on the present, the information that isn’t normally formally recorded. You see, Agnes is placed with a family after her incident in jail. A district officer, Jon, is forced to take her in to live with his wife and two daughters.
The extreme landscape and weather dominates their lives with its unpredictability and cruelty. But it also leaves a mark on them. The coldness has seeped into these petty people and Agnes sees it when she first moves in with them. She has to sleep with the family and work alongside them while they wait to hear about how and when she will be killed.
A young priest is sent to tend to her spiritual side and prepare her for death, and over time she tells him her story. Everyone hears her story from her birth to the present day, they’re trapped in a tiny house together where there’s no escape.
Family, relationships, identity, human struggle, all are examined against this historic setting. The language is beautiful and draws you in quickly to the story. I found it so sad in places but the author constructs it in such a way that you feel the pain and stresses along with the characters.
Any Cop?: Definitely worth a read. It was awful when it finished, and of course it had to finish. But Agnes left behind much more than people thought a pauper ever could.