Monday, November 4, 2013

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

My garden today, Nov 4 2013.
(Photo by Laurie MacFayden)
We've just had our first big snow in Edmonton, so the atmosphere here is right for a historical mystery set in Iceland. Australian author Hannah Kent based her debut novel, Burial Rites, on historical fact. In 1830, Agnes Magnusdottir was the last person to be executed in Iceland.

After being convicted of murder and sentenced to have her head chopped off, Agnes spends more than a year waiting for her execution. A farm family is assigned the responsibility of keeping her while she waits. Agnes shares their tiny croft for many months, working side by side with uneasy family members. She is frequently visited by a young priest whose task is to bring her to God before she dies.

The narrative shifts comfortably between different points of view, but Agnes is the only character given first-person voice. According to the author's note, "many of the letters, documents and extracts presented at the beginning of each chapter have been translated and adapted from original sources." I was struck by one in particular, in which the district commissioner protests the unforeseen cost of the executioner's axe -- nearly six times higher than expected -- and the resulting strain on his budget.

The events leading up to the night of the double murder and arson, and what role Agnes played in it, are slowly revealed. Along the way, we get to know some fascinating people and their way of life. (A glass of whey, anyone? How about some pickled whale? Don't mind all that dirt on the bed; it's just that our sod walls are crumbling.)

I really enjoyed Burial Rites. It also made me thankful for central heating.

Readalikes: The Colour of Milk (Nell Leyshon); The Tenderness of Wolves (Stef Penney); Alias Grace (Margaret Atwood).

No comments: