The story, based on historical record and heightened immeasurably by Ms. Kent's wonderful ability to step inside the character, is set in the remote and religious Iceland of 1829. This is a society that cuts no slack for poor women who have no defenders. Agnes Magnúsdóttir, along with her supposed confederate in a crime, is condemned to death for the brutal murder of two men. She is sent to wait out the months leading up to her execution on the farm of district officer Jón Jónsson, his wife and their two daughters. This is the only place that she can safely await her death.
The family, especially the mother, is resentful, frightened, and embarrassed at having to harbor a murderess in their small cottage. They avoid contact with Agnes as much as possible but assign her back-breaking labor. Often this labor brings them into close contact with their guest. We get inside Agnes' head and learn how she came to her death sentence, but we also get insight into the family. And into the priest sent to hear her confession.
The priest hears Agnes’s side of the story and provides her with succor despite being advised to keep his emotional distance. Over the course of the year, the family begins to view her differently and listens, as they must in their tiny cottage, to her confession.
Based on a true story, Burial Rites is a fantastic novel about so many things. Yes, we learn about Iceland at that time. But more than that, we see how women can easily become little more than currency if men choose to make them thus. Agnes never stood a chance coming from her circumstances despite being intelligent and resourceful.
With a writing style as lucid and bracing as an Icelandic winter, Hannah Ken's sad but beautiful novel makes us hunger for her next one.
THIS BOOKS DEBUTS IN EARLY SEPTEMBER. Megan sent me an ARC.