“What sort of woman kills men?”
In northern Iceland, 1829, Agnes Magnúsdóttir is condemned to death for her part in the brutal murder of two men.
Agnes is sent to wait out the time leading to her execution on the farm of District Officer Jón Jónsson, his wife and their two daughters. Horrified to have a convicted murderess in their midst, the family avoids speaking with Agnes. Only Tóti, the young assistant reverend appointed as Agnes’ spiritual guardian, is compelled to try to understand her, as he attempts to salvage her soul. As the summer months fall away to winter and the hardships of rural life force the household to work side by side, Agnes’ ill-fated tale of longing and betrayal begins to emerge. And as the days to her execution draw closer, the question burns: did she or didn’t she?
Based on a true story, Burial Rites is a deeply moving novel about personal freedom: who we are seen to be versus who we believe ourselves to be, and the ways in which we will risk everything for love. In beautiful, cut-glass prose, Hannah Kent portrays Iceland’s formidable landscape, where every day is a battle for survival, and asks, how can one woman hope to endure when her life depends upon the stories told by others?
That synopsis alone had me enchanted, so you can imagine how much I ended up loving the actual story written by Kent and narrated by the phenomenal Morven Christie. Speaking of, deciding to listen to the audiobook was one of the best ones decisions I made. It helped tremendously in learning how to correctly pronounce Icelandic names and places. And Christie’s narration only added to the eerie and gloomy atmosphere of this book. She’s purely brilliant in giving the characters their fitting voice, especially the one for Agnes Magnúsdóttir. I would come to anticipate her chapters purely for the fact that Morven Christie’s gave her such a richly measured and distinctly calm voice. Plus, when I tried to pick up the book and read it by myself, it just didn’t have the same haunting effect.
And if you’re not convinced after reading this next passage…
“I remain quiet. I am determined to close myself to the world, to tighten my heart and hold on to what has not yet been stolen from me. I cannot let myself slip away. I will hold what I am inside, and keep my hands tight around all the things I have seen and heard, and felt. The poems composed as I washed and scythed and cooked until my hands were raw. The sagas I know by heart. I am sinking all I have left and going underwater. If I speak, it will be in bubbles of air. They will not be able to keep my words for themselves. They will see the whore, the madwoman, the murderess, the female dripping blood into the grass and laughing with her mouth choked with dirt. They will say ‘Agnes’ and see the spider, the witch caught in the webbing of her own fateful weaving. They might see the lamb circled by ravens, bleating for a lost mother. But they will not see me. I will not be there.”
This piece, written with such haunting and hypnotizing detail, completely seized my heart. Which I quickly came to realize would occur more than once throughout Burial Rites. The imagery behind certain pieces in Kent’s writing were so evocative, raw and hauntingly powerful, I was left in awe more than once.And I was surprised, though I shouldn’t have been, when I grew fond of Agnes Magnúsdóttir with each passing page. It was the little things I noticed that left me under her spell, such as:
- Her obsession with foresights, superstitions, omens and ravens. I loved this because it reminded me of my favorite magical realism story, The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton:
“And creatures should be loved for their wisdom if they cannot be loved for kindness. As a child, I watched the ravens gather on the roof of Undirfell church, hoping to learn who was going to die. I sat on the wall, waiting for one to shake out his feathers, waiting to see which direction his beak turned. It happened once. A raven settled upon the wooden gable and jerked his beak towards the farm of Bakki, and a little boy drowned later that week, found swollen and grey downriver. The raven had known.”
- Speaking of magical realism, I was over the moon when I saw how seriously some characters took their dreams in here, because same!!
“‘Reverend,’ she said quietly. ‘If I tell you something, will you promise to believe me?’
Tóti felt his heart leap in his chest. ‘What is it you want to tell me, Agnes?’
‘Remember when you first visited me here, and you asked me why I had chosen you to be my priest, and I told you that it was because of an act of kindness, because you had helped me across the river?’ Agnes cast a wary glance out to the group of people on the edge of the field. ‘I wasn’t lying,’ she continued. ‘We did meet then. But what I didn’t tell you was that we had met before.’
Tóti raised his eyebrows. ‘I’m sorry, Agnes. I don’t remember.’
‘You wouldn’t have. We met in a dream.’”
I said it once and I’ll say it again: This is how you win over my heart in a flash.
- Also loved how Agnes didn’t give a flying fuck:
“‘You called me a child,’ Tóti said.
‘I offended you.’ She seemed disinterested.
‘I wasn’t offended,’ Tóti said, lying. ‘But you’re wrong, Agnes. Yes, I’m a young man, but I have spent three long years at the school of Bessastadir in the south, I speak Latin and Greek and Danish, and God has chosen me to shepherd you to redemption.’
Agnes looked at him, unblinking. ‘No. I chose you, Reverend.’”
- And quickly circling back to the writing, some passages simply left my mind reeling with how seamlessly perfect, dark, and brutally honest they were.
“‘And do you remember her death very well?’
Agnes stopped knitting and looked around at the women again. They had fallen silent and were listening. ‘Do I remember?’ she repeated, a little louder. ‘I wish I could forget it.’ She unhooked her index finger from the thread of wool and brought it to her forehead. ‘In here,’ she said, ‘I can turn to that day as though it were a page in a book. It’s written so deeply upon my mind I can almost taste the ink.”
“‘But, Agnes, actions speak louder than words.’
‘Actions lie,’ Agnes retorted quickly. ‘Sometimes people never stood a chance in the beginning, or they might have made a mistake. When people start saying things like she must be a bad mother because of that mistake . . .’
When Tóti said nothing in response she went on.
‘It’s not fair. People claim to know you through the things you’ve done, and not by sitting down and listening to you speak for yourself. No matter how much you try to live a godly life, if you make a mistake in this valley, it’s never forgotten. No matter if you tried to do what was best. No matter if your innermost self whispers, “I am not as you say!” – how other people think of you determines who you are.’”
If there’s one thing that I’m sure of, it’s that Hannah Kent can write like nobody’s business.
- On that note, I have to mention the memory Agnes was talking about in the first exhibit, because I cannot stop thinking about it ever since I read it. Agnes describing the death of her foster-mother during birth… it was painful and tragic and vivid, and I’m still speechless that it all occurred during a storm.
“‘It’s strange,’ Agnes said, using her little finger to wind the wool about the needle head. ‘Most of the time when I think of when I was younger, everything is unclear. As though I were looking at things through smoked glass. But Inga’s death, and everything that came after it . . . I almost feel that it was yesterday.’”
I had hardly breathed during Agnes recalling this memory. That whole chapter messed me up… AND NOW I CAN’T STOP THINKING ABOUT IT. Real talk, those were some masterful storytelling skills on the author’s part.
- Side note: Iceland is one of my top places to visit, so I was beyond ecstatic to explore it through words. And the author did a beyond phenomenal job of bringing the place to life. Also, I loved getting to know a bit of history on the place and its customs. (P.S. this photo essay of the places Kent wrote about was great to look into after reading.)
- And one last thing I want to discuss: that ending… I knew what was coming, but that didn’t help ease the pain in the least when what happened, happened. My heart ached even more when we got to see Agnes growing closer to the members of the family at the farm of Kornsá. Margrét in particular was like the mother figure she’d never had. And so their goodbyes consequently broke my heart into tiny little pieces.
“Margrét is reaching out to me and she takes my hand in hers, clasps my fingers so tightly that it hurts, it hurts.
‘You are not a monster,’ she says. Her face is flushed and she bites her lip, she bites down. Her fingers, entwined with my own, are hot and greasy.
‘They’re going to kill me.’ Who said that? Did I say that?
‘We’ll remember you, Agnes.’ She presses my fingers more tightly, until I almost cry out from the pain, and then I am crying. I don’t want to be remembered, I want to be here!
‘I am right here, Agnes. You’ll be all right, my girl. My girl.”
MY GIRL. I had to stop myself from crying at this point. (Still, as I’m writing this.)If one thing’s for sure, this beautiful, all-consuming novel about family, secrets, and murder won’t be leaving my mind for awhile.
Plus, listening to this emotional song really got me further into the story: