A commentary by Nalini Haynes
Burial Rites is ‘Scandinavian Noir’ because it’s set in Iceland; it’s the ‘speculative biography’ of Agnes Magnusdottir, the last woman to be executed in Iceland. Hannah Kent calls Burial Rites a ‘speculative biography’ because it’s based on and true to historical records while seeking to add to the story.
Agnes Magnusdottir was executed for the murder of Natan Kettilsson, her employer, and participating in the murder of another man. We know this at the beginning; what follows are, essentially, Agnes’s burial rites, the events leading up to her execution.
At the Melbourne Writers Festival Hannah Kent talked about the government silencing people and there being no more effective way to silence people than with execution. These comments, alongside irregularities in the trial, lead me to expect some kind of cover-up or, at least, a suspect political motive for holding the prisoners in Iceland instead of sending them to Copenhagen for appeal, sentencing and execution as was apparently the norm.
Hannah Kent spoke of Agnes’s lack of language, of needing ‘another language’ to convey her story. Early in Burial Rites, Agnes is filthy, seemingly obsessed with bodily functions, while speaking very little. However, when Agnes opens up in the second half of the book, her voice is very similar to Margret’s, the woman responsible for overseeing Agnes’s last confinement.
Early on, Agnes seems like an outsider; a victim perhaps wrongfully accused; a person with a tale that may, perhaps, add some depth to public records.
Later, Agnes seems deceitful and manipulative, attempting to win favour from her captors by misleading them. As the story unfolds through Agnes telling portions and reminiscing other portions, Agnes and her cohort — including the murdered Natan — become little more than characters from a 19th century Jerry Springer show. Even Agnes’s bleating about Natan ‘not allowing’ her to go to church to make friends becomes tiresome as, if ‘being allowed’ was the issue, Natan was absent from home frequently, ‘allowing’ Agnes to attend church by his absence.
By the end of the novel Agnes had lost my sympathy so I was focusing on trivia like statements that implied the child was no longer with the murderers (the 3 were alone once more) — oh, wait, the child is back — and where was the child during the murders?
Burial Rites is all the rage as Scandinavian Noir and a 19th century “true” crime novel for those who don’t mind knowing the end before they begin.
Rating: ★★★☆☆ 3/5 stars