Hannah Kent was born in 1985 in Adelaide, Australia. When she was six she knew she wanted to be a writer, but her parents said – well you can write but you have to study so you can get a job. When she was 17, Hannah was faced with going to university and declaring a field of study. She was unsure and then heard about a year in a foreign exchange program offered through the Rotary. Hannah had never seen snow so she wrote that she wanted to go to Iceland, Sweden or Switzerland. She was chosen and sent to a small fishing village in Iceland in January. Hannah discovered right away she was an outsider. Everyone knew of her but she didn’t really get to interact with many people. It was constantly dark and winter which made it harder. Her host family started taking her on little road trips. They started telling her stories of different parts of the landscape. She immediately figured out that the land was the important thread of connection between all the people. Once she started asking questions, learning the sagas, learning the language, she discovered she loved Iceland.
On one road trip, they showed her three odd looking hills, and they told her the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir. Agnes was the last woman executed in Iceland in 1830 for the murder of two men while they slept and for burning down the farm. She and two others were found guilty and sentenced. Agnes and Friðrik Sigurðsson were sentenced to be beheaded and it was done on those hills. Hannah found herself thinking a lot about Agnes, and Agnes even invaded her dreams when she returned to Australia. Hannah decided to study creative writing at university and worked on a Ph.D. using Agnes’ story as her thesis.
Hannah started writing Burial Rites as Agnes’ story because of the lack of information she found on Agnes. Whether it was church records, stories, books, Agnes was portrayed as inherently evil. No good qualities were listed. This bothered Hannah because nothing is ever all good or all bad. She sought to use as much of the history as possible but also to write about what Agnes went through in her last days.
I recently hosted Hannah Kent at the Tattered Cover. I chose to listen to Burial Rites and was glad that I did before I heard the author speak about the book. The audio book drew me in, not only because of the reader and the strange sounds of the Icelandic words, names and places, but also because the writing is exquisite. This is Hannah Kent’s first novel. Her characterization of Agnes and her final months on a farm with a family who was forced to house her until her execution were believable, heartbreaking, and sometimes as stark as the winter in Iceland. Agnes is sent to wait out the time to the farm of District Officer Jón Jónsson, his wife and their two daughters. Horrified to have a convicted murderess in their midst, the family avoids speaking with Agnes. Only Tóti, the young, naive assistant reverend appointed as Agnes’s spiritual guardian, is compelled to try to understand her, as he attempts to salvage her soul. As the summer months fall away to winter and the hardships of rural life force the household to work side by side, Agnes’s ill-fated tale of longing and betrayal begins to emerge. And as the days to her execution draw closer, the question burns: did she or didn’t she?
The book has been well-received in Iceland as well as other countries. It has been optioned for film and Jennifer Lawrence has chosen to portray Agnes. No story is all good or bad. Agnes’ story – parts of it will never be known, but Hannah Kent gave her a voice and a plausible what might have been in this novel. There are reading guides and information in the back of the book.
~Lisa Program Liason – James H. LaRue