True tragedy in a lost time

Nanjing Night Net

Hannah Kent: Burial Rites is a ”dark love letter to Iceland”.BURIAL RITES 

By Hannah Kent. Picador. 338pp. $32.99.

Hannah Kent’s $1 million two-book deal with Picador and Little Brown came after her debut novel, Burial Rites, won the 2011 Writing Australia Unpublished Manuscript Award and she was mentored by Geraldine Brooks.

Burial Rites is based on the true story of Agnes Magnusdottir, the last woman executed in Iceland in 1829. Magnusdottir was found guilty of the murders of her lover Natan Ketilsson and Petur Jonsson at a remote farm in Illugastadir, where she worked as a servant. Kent, who now teaches English and creative writing at Flinders University, first heard Magnusdottir’s story when living in Iceland as a Rotary exchange student.

Kent says that Magnusdottir was represented “as a monster or a witch, the Lady Macbeth behind the murders, a very manipulative, scheming woman. It didn’t take into consideration her experiences or the struggle that she probably suffered.”

Kent, therefore, reimagines the last months of Magnusdottir’s life, after the District Commissioner, Bjorn Blondal, sends her to live with Jon Jonsson, his wife Margret and their two daughters on their farm, Kornsa, “a custodial holding until the date and place of execution have been agreed upon”.

Blondal believes that living with “upright Christians” will “inspire repentance by good example” and a priest will visit to “inspire … an acknowledgement of justice”. Magnusdottir asks for a young priest, Thorvandur Jonsson, known as Toti, as she remembers him for an act of kindness in the past.

Initially, the family at Kornsa resent and fear the presence of Magnusdottir, but her humility and hard work win their respect and, to a degree, their affection. Magnusdottir tells Toti the truth about what happened at Illugastadir and the appalling life of servitude and poverty she has led since being abandoned by her mother, at the age of six.

Her suffering establishes her as a human being rather than ” the whore, the murderess, the female dripping blood” of legend.

Kent has called Burial Rites a “dark love letter to Iceland … my paean to this place where beauty and horror, and tradition and deprivation … were all woven together”. Certainly, Kent’s beautiful prose recaptures evocatively a lost time and a true tragedy.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.