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September 12, 2013 , 1 : 03 pm GST
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Burial Rites by Hannah Kent
HANNAH KENT'S haunting debut is as much about a beautiful, bleak landscape as it is a character study of a condemned woman awaiting her death by beheading.
Set in 1830s Iceland, Burial Rites tells the story of Agnes Magnusdottir who was the last person to be executed in Iceland.
Kent came across the story of Magnusdottir as a 17-year-old exchange student. Agnes was sentenced to death for her part in the murders of Natan Ketilsson and Petur Jonsson.
The story lodged itself in Kent's mind, until she decided to recreate Agnes for the creative component of her PhD. Kent returned to Iceland, consulted public records, looked at historical resources and national archives and spoke to islanders, gradually building up a picture of the life and times of Magnusdottir.
Accused of the murder of her lover Natan, fictional Agnes observes the process with acute insight: "at Hvammur, during the trial, they plucked at my words like birds. Dreadful birds…looking for guilt like berries on a bush."
The jail is overcrowded and it is decided that Agnes should spend the time before her death working with a good Christian family in the hope that the family's piety will bring bright repentance to her benighted soul. She is foisted on the very reluctant Jonsdottirs, who are unwilling to house a violent killer in their midst. Kent skilfully ratchets up the sense of antagonism towards Agnes but also builds a recognisable picture of ordinary family life confronting extraordinary events; the bickering daughters Steina and Lauga are worried about their marriage prospects as well as their safety.
Mother Margret has a debilitating cough and is concerned with the survival of the farm and father Jon is a town official and feels he has no choice in the matter, especially as Agnes has been assigned a reverend, Toti, to be her spiritual adviser. Agnes turns a willing hand to the farm work, from toiling in the fields to slaughtering livestock in preparation for winter. Kent's account of this harsh and isolated life is set against the eerie, strangely beautiful landscape, a world of wind and weather and air frigid with cold.
This is a tormented tale of love and betrayal and divided loyalties recounted with heartfelt honesty; and as the Jonsdottirs listen to the unravelling of Agnes's life, their relationship with her undergoes a slow transformation and lonely Agnes changes from a cold, murderous criminal to a troubled young woman. An exceptional debut.
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