The greatest gift of historical fiction is that it provides us with a window into a world diametrically different from our own. Good historical fiction brings us back in time and allows us to imagine, on both an emotional and sensory level, what it would be like to live in a different place and time.
Hannah Kent’s BURIAL RITES does just that, sweeping us off to Iceland in the early nineteenth century. It is the powerful story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, a young farm worker convicted of a horrific crime. We know the outcome from the beginning: the book opens with Agnes as a prisoner, placed with a local family who will guard her until her execution. The family eventually warms to Agnes, and as the story of her life—and her crime—is slowly revealed, both the family and the reader try to understand the circumstances and, most importantly, the reason behind the murder.
At the same time, Agnes herself is revealed: an intelligent, astute woman who started life with all the odds stacked against her, and who begs the question, never fully answered, of whether she is a cold-blooded murderess or an unfortunate victim of circumstances. It’s a compelling structure that allows us to develop empathy for Agnes and for her eventual plight, and one which infuses the book with a powerful sense of dread as the day of her execution approaches.
Kent writes in sparse, crisp prose, bringing Agnes’s world to life in the reader’s mind. She captures perfectly the bleak landscape; the bone-biting cold; the darkness; the isolation; and the smoky, dirty reality of the low thatch houses.
Kent focuses in on seemingly insignificant details to jolt the reader and remind us again how different this world is: in the first few pages, a man on a horse rides up to an isolated farmstead and is wearing a red coat. We might not think twice about a red coat, but in Agnes’s world, where colors are so rarely seen, the presence of this coat signals that its wearer is a rich and important man.
While BURIAL RITES is not a happy story, it is well worth the read. You might ask why you would choose to be transported to nineteenth-century Iceland and into this harrowing tale, but I always find that in sorrow and sadness lie the potential for the deepest connection with the characters.
BURIAL RITES asks us to reflect on Agnes’s life and on the slim twists of fate that might lead one person to a secure and happy life, and another one to the execution block. If you’re like me, BURIAL RITES will be an immensely satisfying read, and one that will resonate long after the last page is turned.