Agnes Magnusdottir and Fridrik Sigurdsson were the last people executed in Iceland. It was January 12, 1830. They were both convicted of murdering Natan Ketilsson, a noted herbalist, healer, and farmer, stabbing him to death and setting his house on fire. Agnes worked as a servant to Natan, while Fredrik was the son of a neighboring farmer. The story of this murder, and its resulting execution, continues to capture the imagination of Icelanders. Natan’s workshop and the site of the execution are landmarks. It is the subject of many books and films, all offering different interpretations of both the events and persons involved. The narratives span from Natan being an overbearing master to Agnes as a woman scorned. But, the first I ever heard of these individuals is through Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites.
In Burial Rites, Kent offers her interpretation of Agnes’ final months. Agnes awaits her execution housed with the family of District Officer Jon Jonsson, which understandably causes friction in the household. Jonsson, his wife, and daughters are unhappy about living with a murderess. Agnes, coming to terms with her fate, must navigate all the pitfalls of living in a strange household with people who don’t want you there. In addition, Agnes is visited regularly by Assistant Reverend Toti, who is charged with providing religious counsel and spiritual consolation. And she isn’t exactly receptive. But then Agnes begins to tell the story of her life to Toti, the Jonsson family listening due to the close quarters of the badstofa, and things begin to change.
What I appreciate about the novel is that the murder isn’t the center of the narrative. Rather, Kent writes well about the building of a relationship and the development of trust and understanding between people who already have their minds made up about each other. This growth is stunted by the impending execution, which hangs over the situation like a sword of Damocles. Indeed, an axe is being fashioned. I also enjoyed how Kent used government documents and letters from officials on how to deal with the prisoners and the execution into the narrative. It’s a bleak novel—but it really can’t be anything else.