Burial Rites by Hannah Kent is perhaps not the only historical novel I have read so far which puts its center figure into an area of ambiguity in an attempt to coax readers out of being judgmental toward whatever there is in the history. But I can tell it has a stronger narrative than any other to convince them that the history hasn’t often done justice to women. Hence the need for this fictionalization, where Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the center figure here, has a huge possibility and opportunity to somewhat retell everything from her own point of view, even if only to defend her action.
Agnes Magnúsdóttir, an orphaned domestic servant with no clear parentage despite her surname (Magnúsdóttir means “the daughter of Magnús” in Icelandic), has to face a death sentence for evidently killing Natan Ketilsson and another man by the name of Pétur Jonsson one night in an isolated farmland of Illugastadir. She is not alone during the incident, for she’s in company with Sigrídur Gudmundsdottir and her boyfriend Fridrik Sigurdsson. But she seems to be the only one who has to take all the blame and heavier hit, mostly because of her alleged practice of witchcraft and people’s rushed conclusion on what seems to happen. Before her execution, she is transferred to Kornsá and forced to live with the family there, or should I say, the family there is forced to take her into their custody while the certain date for the penalty has yet to be set. The family, of course, cannot accept easily her presence in their tiny farmhouse, cannot bear the very idea of having to sleep under the same roof with a murderer, a criminal soon to be sentenced. But that does not become her concern, at least not anymore after Assistant Priest Thorvardur “Tóti” Jónsson comes to help her prepare for her execution, mainly guiding her back to “morality” and the path of God. But Agnes doesn’t want any assistance, nor guidance for that matter. She wants to be heard, she needs to be heard. And so Tóti, who has more compassion than any other people do in that place at that time, sits with her and listens to everything she has to say—about her childhood, her family, her earlier life, and what actually happens.
Agnes Magnúsdóttir is a real figure in the past. And while Burial Rites may not be a completely true story, it is historically true that her character is portrayed with a very little respect and a lot of judgement; that she is a murderer, a witch, and a daughter of nobody knows who. The narrative developed by the writer seems to show how the society of Iceland back in late 1820s mistreats an illegitimate girl and accuses her of being a witch merely because of her high intelligence and broad knowledge, giving me the impression that to them a well-read woman literally is a dangerous creature. It feels equally unfair that the apparatus of justice of said society has more mercy on a woman with beautiful looks like Sigga than on a woman with brain like Agnes, as if she really is an old, ugly, cunning witch flying on a broomstick. In short, Agnes’ image and reputation in the history are so unjustly bad that, in this book, Kent feels an obligation to drag her character into the gray area so that she can be free of people’s judgement and defend her unforgivable action.
Through her fictionalized account, Kent also tries to show how the old Icelandic society treats women, generally, in a humiliating, second-sex kind of way; how they seem duty-bound to put off men’s shoes, be compliant and resign themselves to being the objects of their masters’ sexual desires unless they want to lose their job and what little money they can get from it, how they are discouraged from learning and studying and knowing anything. However, on the other hand, there is this woman, Rosa the poet, who seems so smart in the art of language and so confident and doesn’t even feel the slightest shame nor guilt about having an affair with another man while she’s under her husband’s roof. Well, since the whole story focuses on Agnes and what she has to go through, it is the oppression toward women that takes the main spot for all the readers to see.
Burial Rites is a tightly-plotted, convincing story, despite its being half fiction. I have to give some credit to Hannah Kent for giving the reader such a detailed account of what happened in a faraway land in a period of which society and its system were more patriarchal than today’s, even if it means including some interjecting documents and historical reports. The opening narration voiced by Agnes is compelling enough to urge the reader to read on and endure the flipping way of storytelling, especially because it is done in both first and third points of view, between beautifully crafted sentences of Agnes and matter-of-factly written ones of others. Once again, in spite of its being only half true, the whole narrative of Burial Rites succeeds in casting a spell on readers that they will find themselves believing the entire story told by Agnes and feeling sympathy for her. But then again, I think that is the purpose of this book. I myself have to admit that I felt heartbroken knowing how everything turned out and what actually laid behind Agnes’ decision, at least in this fictionalized version.
All in all, Burial Rites is truly a brilliant work of historical fiction. Everything about this book is absorbing, really sending us reeling a bit after closing the last page. I found myself wishing it could have a different ending, but I reckon its decided conclusion is the best way to end all the mess. Moreover, by having otherwise, it would only ruin the history altogether.