This was the second book that the marvelous and generous faintingviolet got for me last year during the Holiday Book Exchange. This book is outside of what I usually pick up to read, but I’m thankful that I gave it a chance.
Agnes Magnusdottir has been convicted of murder and sentenced to die in the early 1800s of Iceland. While she awaits her execution she is sent to live with a district official and his family. There’s his wife Margret, a very sick woman who is doing everything she can to keep her home together and her family safe. Also, there are two daughters, one, an uptight young woman who is terrified of not only what Agnes will do to them but what the neighboring farms will think and say of the family, and the other, a freer spirit who is immediately enthralled by Agnes and her story. As part of the Crown’s commitment to the everlasting soul of the convicted, Agnes also is allowed to choose a reverend as her spiritual advisor for her final time on earth. She chooses an assistant reverend with very little experience name Toti.
Most of the time, when I read historical fiction set around this time about a woman convicted of a crime, I’m reading a story with ties to the witch trials in North America. There’s always a burning, nearly uncontainable rage that I feel at how those women are treated. There is no such setting in Burial Rites, and I felt no such rage. Instead, author Hannah Kent crafted a sense of sorrowful compassion toward Agnes and the rest of the family. Agnes doesn’t rail against the system or curse the community for her fate. She shoulders the burden of what’s to come and continues with the life she’s been assigned as best as she can.
Part of me wishes that more of the story took place when the crime was committed rather than experiencing those moments through Agnes’ storytelling to Reverend Toti and the family she’s living with. There would have been greater urgency and tension. But I don’t think that that was Kent’s focus. She was much more concerned with how Agnes would relate to religion knowing her fate and to these other women in her foster family: to the mother that she never had and the sisters whom she lost. This is a quiet book. But if you listen closely, there’s a fantastic story of survival and connection that’s whispered in the winter winds of Iceland.