THEY SAID I MUST DIE. So begins Burial Rites, a masterfully crafted novel by Australian author Hannah Kent. It tells the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, a servant-woman convicted of murdering her former master, condemned to death and sent to live with a reluctant family while awaiting execution. Intrigued? I was, as I stood in Dymocks with a pile of books already tucked under my arm and my right eye glued to the series two disc-set of The Returned (Les Revenants) calling to me from the other wall.
Once you get the hang of the Icelandic surnames (the affixation of –són for son or –dóttir for daughter to the father’s first name) and geographic locations like Stóra-Borg, Illugastadir, Geitaskard… nothing slows you down. In fact, you feel like you’re racing against the clock to find out if the courts will change their verdict!
I was amazed to find that the tale is based on a real-life trial that occurred in Northern Iceland in 1829. While admittedly fictional, Kent’s astounding amount of research and commitment to the story gives characters a real sense of authenticity and genuine voice.
The book centres on the psychological torment that Agnes has to endure while awaiting her execution, and is filled with her memories of the events that got her to this point. Just like anything in life, the case is all more complicated than what it seems to be from the outside! Kent not only dives into the psychological struggle of the prisoner, but also the moral conflicts of the family forced to take her in. As they become accustomed to living and working together on the farm, Agnes becomes more ‘human’ to the family and they begin to question whether the punishment of death is just.
Honest, bleak, and moving, Burial Rites is a refreshing read. I think it sits well as a transitional text between Young Adult and adult fiction. Pick it up!