Perhaps still a little shell-shocked from the previous evening’s events, seven of us gathered at Betsey’s house last Wednesday, the 9th of November. Although we were not shy about sharing our thoughts and feelings about the election, I am proud to say that we spent a good deal of time discussing our book for the month: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent.
Set in rural Iceland in the 1820’s, the novel is inspired by the real life and death of Agnus Magnusdottir, who was the last person executed in the country. There being no jails in the area, Agnes is forced to wait for months at the home of a local farmer while her conviction and death sentence are reviewed and approved by the king of Denmark. Kent does an admirable job of portraying the relationships that develop between Agnes, the family that is forced to house her, and the priest charged with ministering to her. As the characters work, eat, and sleep closely together in the stark, challenging and often beautiful Icelandic landscape, their fear and distrust slowly transform as the hidden pieces of Agnes’s story are gradually revealed.
Once again we marveled at an author’s ability to create suspense even though we knew how the story would end. Perhaps in this case, the effect was heightened by our hopes for a different outcome. Agnes’s story is a compelling one, and Kent says she wrote the book in part to reintroduce compassion into accounts of these historical events.
This is Kent’s first novel, and it is an impressive start. We certainly weren’t short on topics to discuss. For example, we were fascinated by the role of storytelling and of literacy in the community. Religion seemed to play an important role in maintaining these skills. However, the priest is a somewhat ineffective character, and though he is ultimately the catalyst that gets Agnes to tell her story, it is not clear that the religious authorities would approve.
We also noted the importance of the Icelandic climate and landscape in shaping the lives of its inhabitants and the events in the novel. For instance, for warmth all the members of a household, including servants, sleep in the same room. As you can imagine, this heightens tensions at the beginning as the family must deal with the convicted murderer in their midst. However, this forced intimacy also makes it difficult for her captors to deny the humanity of Agnes as the days progress. The swinging back and forth between the closeness and claustrophobia of such moments and the agoraphobic lonesomeness of the expansive Icelandic countryside is one of the many things that makes the book so emotionally engaging.
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