Reading Hannah Kent's Baileys Womens Prize nominated Burial Rites was an intense and harrowing read. Despite knowing the outcome, or maybe because I knew what the outcome would be I set this one aside more than once, but just recently felt the desire to press on. Why not a fictionalized true crime novel for my summer of murder and mayhem? It is equally as engaging as it is dark and forbidding. Based on a true story, Kent's novel imagines condemned murderess Agnes Magnúsdóttir's last months. It's not so much a question of did she or didn't she, rather the degree of participation and culpability in the crime. This is early 19th century, rural northern Iceland we're talking about. Agnes is a servant. You can imagine the rest. Hannah Kent's novel fills in all the blanks and adds visuals. She weaves quite an impressive story.
I think I will forever have this book, or the latter part of it anyway, mingled in my mind with the unhappy ending to Anne Boleyn's life. I was watching Wolf Hall at the same time, and if you watched that last episode, well . . . You know how it ended for Anne, too. How do you face an executioner? Knowing you are not guilty in the way they say and wanting so intensely to live. Kent conveys those emotions vividly, which is why this was such a difficult read for me.
"They said I must die. They said that I stole the breath from men, and now they must steal mine. I imagine, then, that we are all candle flames, greasy-bright, fluttering in the darkness and the howl of the wind, and in the stillness of the room I hear footsteps, awful coming footsteps, coming to blow me out and send my life up and away from me in a grey wreath of smoke. I will vanish into the air and the night. They will blow us all out, one by one, until it is only their own light by which they see themselves. Where will I be then?"
So begins Agnes's story, which she narrates in part. Her final days are to be spent on a farmstead with a local family "of upright Christians, who would inspire repentance by good example, and who would benefit from the work the prisoners do as they await execution". In other words there is no other accommodations available for the prisoners so families are selected to "house" them. When Agnes arrives she is a muddied mess, having been treated on her journey as little more than an animal. The local family has two grown daughters and is a working farm--they act out of christian responsibility but not out of any pleasure in aiding the Icelandic government.
Of course Agnes is meant to spend her final days usefully helping out the family and by repenting to her father confessor--a man she had met in her younger days who has just recently finished his studies. There is little repenting but much confessing in the end--but not in the way the reverend or anyone else expects or wants. Agnes tells her story--her story and not just the crime that leads to her demise. It is a story filled with sadness and a prescient tale--almost as though it was all writ loudly in the stars so to speak. Orphaned young and sent into servitude. She ends up in a household of a single man where she believes she is to be the main housekeeper only to find there is already a younger, prettier woman there believing she herself is meant to fill that exact role. It's a claustrophobic household filled with jealousy, tempers easily lost and of lies and faithlessness.
I won't go into the crime, best to let Agnes tell her own story, but she is not the only participant. There was almost only ever one outcome and Agnes knew it, but knew it too late. And so Kent tells a story of a Victorian Society where blame and responsibility weigh heavily, no matter you are a woman or maybe all the more so since you are a woman. As the story unravels Agnes becomes less a prisoner, maybe even something of a victim, but only in a very few eyes. She knows the game, she understands only too well.
"All my life people have thought I was too clever. Too clever by half, they'd say. And you know what Reverend? That's exactly why they don't pity me. Because they think I'm too smart, too knowing to get caught up in this by accident."
This is a finely crafted story. As dark and bleak as it was, and no matter that I had to stop and take a few breathes along the way, I was quite impressed by it. It oozes a particular kind of atmosphere. It is claustrophobic and cloying knowing where it all is leading, but I was fixated until the very end.
The novel includes additional information at the end--the author explains the backstory and how she built on what little is known. She used actual documents in her research, of course, but she weaves them into the story. Although much is imagined by the author it takes on a feel of reality, as if this is really Agnes and what happened on that terrible fateful night. Interestingly the novel grew out of her PhD work and the time she spent in Iceland studying--a country and culture she obviously loves and admires. I am not sure how you follow up a book like this, but I hope she plans on writing more.
For a good readalike you might try one of my favorites, Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace.