A brilliant literary debut, inspired by a true story: the final days of a young woman accused of murder in Iceland in 1829.
Set against Iceland's stark landscape, Hannah Kent brings to vivid life the story of Agnes, who, charged with the brutal murder of her former master, is sent to an isolated farm to await execution.
Horrified at the prospect of housing a convicted murderer, the family at first avoids Agnes. Only Tóti, a priest Agnes has mysteriously chosen to be her spiritual guardian, seeks to understand her. But as Agnes's death looms, the farmer's wife and their daughters learn there is another side to the sensational story they've heard.
Riveting and rich with lyricism, BURIAL RITES evokes a dramatic existence in a distant time and place, and asks the question, how can one woman hope to endure when her life depends upon the stories told by others?
|Publisher:||Little, Brown and Company|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.50(h) x 1.30(d)|
About the Author
Hannah Kent was born in Adelaide in 1985. As a teenager she travelled to Iceland on a Rotary Exchange, where she first heard the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir. Hannah is the co-founder and deputy editor of Australian literary journal Kill Your Darlings, and is completing her PhD at Flinders University. In 2011 she won the inaugural Writing Australia Unpublished Manuscript Award. BURIAL RITES is her first novel.
Read an Excerpt
By Hannah Kent
Little, Brown and CompanyCopyright © 2014 Hannah Kent
All rights reserved.
There will be an auction on the 24th of March 1828, at Illugastadir, for the valuables the farmer Natan Ketilsson has left behind. There is one cow, a few horses, a considerable amount of sheep, hay and furniture, a saddle, a bridle, and many dishes and plates. All this will be sold if a decent offer is presented. All valuables will be awarded to the highest bidder. If the auction is not possible due to bad weather, it will be canceled and held the next day, weather allowing.
District Commissioner Björn Blöndal
20th of March 1828
To the Very Reverend Jóhann Tómasson,
Thank you for your worthy letter from the 14th, where you wished to be informed of how we attended to the burial of Pétur Jónsson from Geitaskard, who is said to have been murdered and burned on the night between the 13th and the 14th of this month, with Natan Ketilsson. As my Reverend is aware, there was some deliberation over whether his bones should be buried in consecrated ground. His conviction and punishment for robbery, theft, and receiving stolen property was to follow after his prosecution in the Supreme Court. However, we have not had any letters from Denmark. The Land Court judge convicted Pétur on the 5th of February last year, and sentenced him to four years of hard labor in the Rasphus in Copenhagen, but at the time of his murder he was on "free foot." Therefore, in answer to your inquiry, his bones were buried with Christian rites, alongside Natan's, as he could not yet be thought of as belonging to those outside the Christian way. These people are expressly defined in the letter from His Majesty the King on the 30th of December 1740, which lists all persons who shall not be permitted Christian burial rites.
District Commissioner Björn Blöndal
30th of May 1829
Rev. T. Jónsson Breidabólstadur, Vesturhóp
To the Assistant Reverend Thorvardur Jónsson,
I trust this letter finds you well and thriving in your administration of the Lord's work in Vesturhóp.
Firstly, I wish to extend to you my congratulations, however belatedly, for the successful completion of your studies in the south of Iceland. Your parishioners say that you are a diligent young man, and I approve of your decision to repair to the north to begin your chaplaincy under the supervision of your father. It is of considerable joy to me to know that there remain righteous men willing to fulfill their duties to man and God.
Secondly, I, in my capacity as District Commissioner, write to you in request of service. As you will be aware, our community has recently been darkened by the shadow of crime. The Illugastadir murders, committed last year, have in their heinousness emblematized the corruption and ungodliness of this county. As District Commissioner for Húnavatn, I cannot abide societal waywardness and, after the anticipated authorization from the Supreme Court in Copenhagen, I intend to execute the Illugastadir murderers. It is with this event in mind that I ask for your assistance, Assistant Reverend Thorvardur.
As you will recall, I related the event of the murders in a letter circulated to the clergy almost ten months ago, with orders that sermons of chastisement be delivered. Allow me to repeat what occurred, this time to provide you with a more invested consideration of the crime.
Last year, on the night between the 13th and 14th of March, three people committed a severe and loathsome act against two men, with whom you may be familiar: Natan Ketilsson and Pétur Jónsson. Pétur and Natan were found in the burnt ruins of Natan's farm, Illugastadir, and a closer examination of their corpses revealed wounds of a deliberately inflicted nature. This discovery led to an inquiry, and from there a trial ensued. On the 2nd of July last year the three persons charged with these murders—one man and two women—were found guilty in the District Court, presided over by myself, and sentenced to be beheaded: "He that Smiteth a Man so that he Die, shall be surely put to Death." The death sentences were upheld in the Land Court on the 27th of October last year, which met in Reykjavík. The case is currently being tried in Copenhagen's Supreme Court, and it is likely that my original judgment will stand there also. The name of the convicted man is Fridrik Sigurdsson, the son of the farmer at Katadalur. The women are workmaids, named Sigrídur Gudmundsdóttir and Agnes Magnúsdóttir.
These convicted persons are currently held in custody here in the north, and will be until the time of their execution. Fridrik Sigurdsson has been taken into Thingeyrar by Reverend Jóhann Tómasson, and Sigrídur Gudmundsdóttir was removed to Midhóp. Agnes Magnúsdóttir was to be kept until her execution at Stóra-Borg, but for reasons which I am not at liberty to state, will be moved to a new holding at Kornsá in the valley of Vatnsdalur next month. She is discontented with her current spiritual administrator, and has used one of her few remaining rights to request another priest. She has requested you, Assistant Reverend Thorvardur.
It is with some uncertainty that I approach you for this task. I am aware that your responsibilities have so far been confined to the spiritual education of your parish's youngest members, which is to say, of undoubted value, but it is of little political import. You may yourself admit that you are too pale in experience to know how to bring this condemned woman to the Lord and His infinite mercy, in which case I would not protest your disinclination. It is a weight that I would hesitate to bestow on the shoulders of experienced clergymen.
Should you, however, accept the responsibility of preparing Agnes Magnúsdóttir for her meeting with our Lord, you will be obliged to visit Kornsá regularly when the weather allows. You must administer God's word and inspire repentance and an acknowledgment of Justice. Please do not let flattery influence your decision, nor kinship, if any resides between you and the convicted. In all things, Reverend, if you cannot construct your own counsel, seek mine.
I await word of your response. Please provide my messenger with such.
District Commissioner Björn Blöndal
Assistant Reverend Thorvardur Jónsson was inside the small farmstead adjoined to the church of Breidabólstadur, repairing the hearth with new stones, when he heard his father clear his throat in the doorway.
"There's a messenger from Hvammur outside, Tóti. He's asking for you."
"For me?" In his surprise he let a rock slip out of his hand. It dropped to the packed earth floor, narrowly missing his foot. Reverend Jón sucked his teeth in annoyance, ducked his head under the doorframe and gently pushed Tóti out of the way.
"Yes, for you. He's waiting."
The messenger was a servant, dressed in a worn coat. He gave Tóti a long look before speaking. "Reverend Thorvardur Jónsson?"
"That's me. Greetings. Well, I'm an Assistant Reverend."
The servant shrugged. "I have a letter for you from the District Commissioner, the Honorable Björn Blöndal." He pulled a small slip of paper out from the inside of his coat, and gave it to Tóti. "I've orders to wait here while you read it."
The letter was warm and damp from sitting inside the servant's clothes. Tóti broke the seal and, noting that it had been written that same day, sat on the chopping block outside the doorway and began to read.
When he finished Blöndal's letter, he looked up and noticed the servant watching him. "Well?" the servant prompted, with a raised eyebrow.
"I beg your pardon?"
"Your response for the District Commissioner? I don't have all day."
"May I talk with my father?"
The servant sighed. "Go on, then."
He found his father in the badstofa, slowly smoothing the blankets upon his bed.
"It's from the District Commissioner." Tóti offered his father the unfolded letter and waited as he read it, unsure of what to do.
His father's face was impassive as he folded the letter and handed it back. He didn't say anything.
"What should I say?" Tóti asked, finally.
"That's your choice."
"I don't know her."
"She's not in our parish?"
"Why has she asked for me? I'm only an Assistant Reverend."
His father turned back to his bed. "Perhaps you ought to address that question to her."
The servant was sitting on the chopping block, cleaning his nails with a knife. "Well, now. What response am I to give the District Commissioner from the Assistant Reverend?"
Tóti replied before he knew his decision. "Tell Blöndal that I will meet with Agnes Magnúsdóttir."
The servant's eyes widened. "Is that what this is all about then?"
"I'm to be her spiritual advisor."
The servant gaped at him, and then suddenly laughed. "Good Lord," he muttered. "They pick a mouse to tame a cat." And with that he mounted his horse and vanished behind the swell of hills, leaving Tóti standing still, holding the letter away from him as though it were about to catch fire.
Steina Jónsdóttir was piling dried dung in the yard outside her family's turf croft when she heard the rapid clop of horses' hooves. Rubbing mud off her skirts, she stood and peered around the side of the hovel to better see the riding track that ran through the valley. A man in a bright red coat was approaching. She watched him turn towards the farm and, fighting a flicker of panic at the realization she would have to greet him, retreated back around the croft, where she hurriedly spat on her hands to clean them and wiped her nose on her sleeve. When she returned to the yard, the rider was waiting.
"Hello, young lady." The man looked down at Steina and her filthy skirts with an air of bemusement. "I see I have interrupted you at your chores." Steina stared as he dismounted, gracefully swinging his leg over his horse. For a large man he landed lightly on his feet. "Do you know who I am?" He looked at her for a glimmer of recognition.
Steina shook her head.
"I am the District Commissioner, Björn Audunsson Blöndal." He gave her a little nod of his head and adjusted his coat, which, Steina noticed, was trimmed with silver buttons.
"You're from Hvammur," she murmured.
Blöndal smiled patiently. "Yes. I am your father's overseer. I have come to speak with him."
"He's not home."
Blöndal frowned. "And your mother?"
"They're visiting folks down south in the valley."
"I see." He looked fixedly at the young woman, who squirmed and cast her eyes nervously to the fields. A smattering of freckles across her nose and forehead interrupted what was otherwise pale skin. Her eyes were brown and widely set, and there was a large gap between her front teeth. There was something rather ungainly about her, Blöndal decided. He noted the thick crescents of dirt under her fingernails.
"You'll have to come back later," Steina finally suggested.
Blöndal tensed. "May I at least come inside?"
"Oh. If you want. You can tie your horse there." Steina bit her lip while Blöndal wound his reins through a post in the yard, and then she turned and almost ran inside.
Blöndal followed her, stooping under the low entrance to the croft. "Will your father return this day?"
"No," was the curt reply.
"How unfavorable," Blöndal complained, stumbling in the dark passageway as Steina led him through to the badstofa. He had grown corpulent since his posting as District Commissioner and was accustomed to the more spacious dwelling provided for him and his family at Hvammur, built from imported wood. The hovels of the peasants and farmers had begun to repel him, with their cramped rooms constructed of turf that issued clouds of dust in the summer, irritating his lungs.
"I'm sorry, District Commissioner. Mamma and Pabbi, I mean, Margrét and Jón, will return tomorrow. Or the next day. Depending on the weather." Steina gestured towards the nearest end of the narrow room, where a gray woolen curtain served as a partition between the badstofa and a tiny parlor. "Sit in there," she said. "I'll go find my sister."
Lauga Jónsdóttir, Steina's younger sister, was weeding the meager vegetable plot at a little distance from the croft. Bent over her task, she hadn't seen the District Commissioner arrive, but she heard her sister calling long before she came into sight.
"Lauga! Where are you? Lauga!"
Lauga rose to her feet and wiped her soiled hands on her apron. She didn't shout back to her sister, but waited patiently until Steina, running and tripping over her long skirts, spotted her.
"I've been looking everywhere for you!" Steina cried, out of breath.
"What on God's earth is wrong with you?"
"The Commissioner is here!"
Lauga stared at her sister. "District Commissioner Björn Blöndal? Wipe your nose, Steina, you're snotting."
"He's sitting in the parlor."
"You know, behind the curtain."
"You left him there by himself?" Lauga's eyes grew wide.
Steina grimaced. "Please come and talk to him."
Lauga glared at her sister, then quickly untied her dirty apron and dropped it beside the lovage. "I can't think of what goes through your head sometimes, Steina," she muttered, as they walked quickly towards the croft. "Leaving a man like Blöndal twiddling his thumbs in our badstofa."
"In the parlor."
"What difference does it make? I suppose you gave him the servants' whey to drink, too."
Steina turned to her sister with a panicked expression. "I didn't give him anything."
"Steina!" Lauga broke into a little trot. "He'll think us peasants!"
Steina watched her sister pick her way through the tussocks of grass. "We are peasants," she mumbled.
Lauga quickly washed her face and hands, and snatched a new apron from Kristín, the family's workmaid, who had hidden herself in the kitchen at the sound of a stranger's voice. Lauga found the District Commissioner seated at the little wooden table in the parlor, reading over a slip of paper. Expressing apologies for her sister's discourteous reception, she offered him a plate of cold, hashed mutton, which he took gladly, albeit with a slightly injured air. She quietly stood aside as he ate, watching his fleshy lips wrap about the meat. Perhaps her Pabbi was to be promoted from District Officer to an even greater title. Perhaps he would receive a uniform, or a stipend from the Danish Crown. There might be new dresses. A new home. More servants.
Blöndal scraped his knife across the plate.
"Would you like some skyr and cream, District Commissioner?" she asked, taking the empty dish.
Blöndal waved his hands in front of his chest as if to decline, then paused. "Well, all right, then. Thank you."
Lauga blushed and turned to fetch the soft cheese.
"And I would not object to coffee," he called after her as she ducked her head around the curtain.
"What does he want?" Steina asked, huddling by the fire in the kitchen. "I can't hear anything except you, clomping up and down the corridor."
Lauga shoved the dirty plate at her. "He hasn't said anything yet. He wants skyr and coffee."
Steina exchanged looks with Kristín, who rolled her eyes. "We have no coffee," Steina said quietly.
"Yes we do. I saw some in the pantry last week."
Steina hesitated. "I ... I drank it."
"Steina! The coffee isn't for us! We save it for occasions!"
"Occasions? The Commissioner never visits."
"The District Commissioner, Steina!"
"The servants are coming back from Reykjavík soon. We might have more then."
"That's then. What are we going to do now?" Exasperated, Lauga pushed Kristín in the direction of the pantry. "Skyr and cream! Hurry."
"I wanted to know what it tasted like," Steina offered.
"It's too late. Bring him some fresh milk instead. Bring everything in when it's ready. Actually no, let Kristín. You look like you've been rolling in the dirt with the horses." Lauga shot a scathing look at the dung on Steina's clothes and walked back down the corridor.
Blöndal was waiting for her. "Young lady. I suppose you are wondering at my occasioning your family with a visit."
Excerpted from Burial Rites by Hannah Kent. Copyright © 2014 Hannah Kent. Excerpted by permission of Little, Brown and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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A Conversation with Hannah Kent, Author of Burial Rites
Burial Rites is based on the true story of an Icelandic woman convicted of murder. When did you first hear about Agnes Magnúsdóttir?
I first heard about Agnes Magnúsdóttir ten years ago, when I was living in Iceland as a seventeen-year-old exchange student. The first few months of my stay there had been quite difficult. I was living in a small Icelandic town where I felt conspicuous as a foreignor, yet also socially isolated. I didn't speak any Icelandic at that stage, it was winter, and the days were gripped by darkness for up to twenty hours at a time. It was during this early period of loneliness that I happened to drive through a very striking place called Vatnsdalur, a valley covered in hundreds of small hills. When I asked my travelling companions if the area was significant for any reason, they told me that it had been the site of the last executions in Iceland, which had taken place well over 150 years ago. Immediately curious, I asked them what had happened, and was told that a young man and woman had been led out to the hills and beheaded by broad axe for their role in the brutal murder of two sleeping men. It seemed like a dark and tragic tale, yet there was something that deeply intrigued me about the woman they mentioned: a 34 year-old servant woman called Agnes. For some strange reason I felt a kinship with her. Possibly I saw a fragment of my own experience of loneliness and social isolation in her story then, for it resonated with me immediately. I thought of her frequently during the rest of my exchange (which ended up being absolutely wonderful), and in the years that followed I realised I had many burning questions about the murders and about Agnes' role in them. I wanted to know what circumstances contributed to such a sorrowful fate, and what sort of woman she had been.
What compelled you to eventually write a novel about her?
While I had been immediately curious about Agnes on first hearing about the executions, it was some years before I decided to write a novel based on her story. In an early attempt to answer the persistent questions I had about the murders and execution, I did a little light research and began translating and reading a few articles about the case. While I soon discovered more details about the crime, something about the records troubled me: in many accounts of the murders Agnes was either portrayed as an unequivocally evil woman, or was hardly mentioned at all. Where I looked for her character, I found only a monstrous stereotype. My decision to write about Agnes was triggered by a longing to find the real woman behind the grotesque caricature of a black-hearted manipulator. It was never a desire to re-open the case in the hope that she was actually innocent. I wanted to instead discover something of her life story, and in doing so explore her ambiguity and complexity.
What kind of research was needed to accurately portray nineteenth-century Iceland?
More than I could ever have anticipated. I read a huge amount of material - everything I could get my hands on - to become familiar with what life was like in nineteenth-century Iceland. Not only did I study history books, but I also read diaries by foreign travellers to the country, fiction by people such as Halldór Laxness, many scholarly articles with very dry titles like 'Infant Mortality in Nordic Countries, 1780-1930', song lyrics, recipes, old newspapers - if it was about Iceland, I read it. It was an enjoyable process, but a slow one: most sources required translation before I could even gauge their usefulness. In the end, the most difficult things to research were aspects of mundane domestic life. What did people eat? Did they celebrate birthdays? If so, how? What were their shoes made out of? Did the men shave or grow beards? Did everyone use chamber pots and how heavy would one be? These are the things a historical novelist needs to know, sometimes even more so than the political climate or social customs, although these things are important too.
I also spent six weeks researching in Iceland's national archives and libraries, where I was able to study censuses, ministerial records and 'soul registers', and where I learned most of the facts of Agnes's life. I also spent some time visiting the places where the novel is set. It was a very intense, very rewarding process, and as I researched the times that Agnes lived in, I found myself drafting scenarios and scenes that were suggested to me by my reading. Some of this imaginative speculation later mirrored the actual facts of her life with eerie resemblance. Overall, it took me about two years of full-time research and study before I felt confident enough in my knowledge of the events and that time in Iceland's history to begin writing.
Is the novel largely fact, or is a significant portion direct from your imagination?
The relationship between fact and fiction is a close and complicated one in Burial Rites. When I decided to write a novel about Agnes Magnúsdóttir and the historical events surrounding Iceland's last execution, I promised myself that I would honour every fact that could be corroborated. In other words, I decided to keep my imagination on a leash, only giving it free reign when the facts contradicted one another, or were nowhere to be found. That said, everything in the novel is somehow anchored to my research, even if it's largely fictional. I never discovered what exactly Agnes was doing from the age of 6 to 16 for instance (the records for those 10 years were destroyed), but my wider research into the lives and experiences of other pauper and illegitimate children informed my speculation. Every creative decision, every fictional aspect of the novel can be directly linked to something I encountered in my reading.
Interestingly, the stranger elements of Agnes's story are the parts that I have not fictionalised. For instance, several characters have important dreams which are discussed in the novel, and form part of the narrative. All of these dreams were taken from several local histories and accounts of the murder - none were made up. It's astonishing what some people think to write down, and what else is neglected. In many ways I think of the novel as a speculative biography. It's only a suggestion of how things might have been, but it is informed conjecture.
The Icelandic landscape has a large presence in the novel. What role does it play, and what impressions has it left on you?
It would be impossible to write an Icelandic story without including the country's landscape. I've never been anywhere else in the world where the natural world is made even more beautiful through its inherent hostility. The weather, the mountains, the northern sky - it all has a presence that cannot be ignored or shut out as it can be in other places. The very light of the place commands your attention. Living there, you find your days shaped by the natural world in ways that it does not in other countries, whether it's the midnight sun preventing you from sleeping with its warm blush coming through your curtains, or a howling gale shutting you inside for days on end. I think the lack of trees contributes to this unusually strong presence of the land and weather. The view is often unobscured, and when you stand in that landscape, amongst the valleys and mountains and fjords, you realise that you too are visible for miles. It creates a mixed yet exhilarating feeling of vulnerability and awe.
When I researched Burial Rites I often came across references to the landscape in letters and diary entries. People would agree to meet at a certain time or place 'weather permitting'. It was a constant phrase, and I slowly realised the extent to which people's lives were governed not only by the seasons, but by day-to-day rainfall, winds, northern lights. I wanted to make sure I captured the force of the Icelandic landscape in Burial Rites, whilst also honouring its splendour.
How do Icelanders feel about this book?
I have had only support from Icelanders so far, which is wonderfully assuring. From the archivists, librarians and locals who assisted me in my research, to those who have got in touch with me since the book has been released, everyone has so far been enthusiastic about my novel. Many are simply curious to know why a young Australian chose to write about events so far away in time and place from her own experiences. No doubt that there will be a number of Icelanders who disagree with the way in which I've portrayed characters (some may be descendants of the historical people they're based on afterall), but I can accept that. I haven't set out to offend anyone, or to subvert a well-known story for the sake of controversy. I hope they see this book as the 'dark love letter to Iceland' I intend it to be.
Who have you discovered lately?
I am completely in awe of Eleanor Catton. I read her debut novel The Rehearsal earlier this year, and was stunned by its originality and ambition. She's young, but the quality of her prose suggests an extraordinarily mature intellect: it is staggeringly good. I'm currently reading her second novel, the Man Booker longlisted The Luminaries, and am once again taking huge pleasure in Catton's use of language and her artful command of structure. I've also been reading the Patrick Melrose quintet by Edward St. Aubyn, and have been recommending the series to anyone who will listen. Acerbic, horrifying and filled with darkly funny observations, St. Aubyn's books are filled with characters so vile, so hideously malformed by their own self-interest and self-righteousness, that you cannot possibly put them down. As soon as I finish the final novel I have plans to read them all over again.