I was captivated by this story long before I even turned the first page.
Australian author Hannah Kent travelled to Iceland as a Rotary exchange student when she was just 17 years old. It was there that she learned about the last person to be executed in Iceland, Agnes Magnúsdóttir (daughter of Magnus) who was beheaded in January 1830. Agnes and a farmhand by the name of Fridrik were convicted of murdering two men in March 1828. Agnes was placed in the custody of a regular farming family while she awaited her execution.
It is from these facts that Hannah Kent, working on her PhD thesis researched and wrote the magnificent Burial Rites.
After winning the inaugural Writing Australia Unpublished Manuscript Award in 2011, publishers began contacting Hannah and a bidding war erupted to publish her manuscript. Burial Rites has now been translated and sold in 20 countries and was nominated for the 2013 Guardian First Book Award.
Hannah Kent was also featured in Australian Story in a piece called No More Than A Ghost where she expands on her writing and research process. It is revealed that she was a little obsessed with Agnes, and there were many bizarre and 'weird' coincidences throughout the writing process. Click here to watch the documentary.
I found Burial Rites incredibly evocative, and I was immediately immersed in the countryside of Iceland, a county I had no prior knowledge of. The gruelling weather, the unforgiving landscape and harsh and close living conditions all set the scene for Agnes' life. The story is told from three points of view: Agnes, the farmer's wife where she is living awaiting her execution and a young priest, charged with bringing her to God.
Agnes' thoughts on her impending death and her love of Natan were incredibly moving and often made me pause to reflect. I read Burial Rites in the middle of summer in Australia, although I shivered with the bleak conditions, my hands ached with the labour intensive tasks Agnes was required to perform and my nostrils flared at the scents of salted meat, smoke of the log fire and stench of the family piss pot.
I lingered for a long time within the pages Burial Rites and I really didn't want it to end. I wasn't looking forward to reading to the end of Agnes' fate, and my heart was definitely heavy at the end.
All in all, an amazing and insightful piece of writing from such a young and talented writer. Hannah Kent was (and still is) deeply connected to the life and fate of Agnes Magnúsdóttir and I wonder if she'll ever write this way again. Was this a once-in-a-lifetime connection and story that touched her deeply, or will she throw herself into another time and place in history with the same abandon?
I can't wait to find out.
My rating = *****