Review: Narrative structure in ‘Burial Rites’ by Hannah Kent

Burial Rites is a compelling début historical fiction novel by Hannah Kent that explores the life of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last woman to be executed in Iceland. In 1829, Fridrik Sigurdsson, the son of the farmer at Katadalur, and Agnes Magnúsdóttir and Sigrídur (Sigga) Gudmundsdóttir, Illugastadir workmaids, are convicted of the murders of Natan Ketilsson, a herbalist and owner of Illugastadir, and Pétur Jónsson, a convicted robber. All three are sentenced to death. Agnes is delivered into the custody of District Officer Jón Jónsdóttir. She awaits her sentence at his home under the watchful eyes of his wife Margrét and their daughters Steinvör (Steina) and Sigurlaug (Lauga). Agnes prepares for death by recounting her story to her spiritual advisor, Assistant Reverend Thorvardur Jónsson (Tóti).

The focus of the novel is not on the crime itself – Agnes has already been convicted and is waiting to die – the question is whether she was fairly judged. The reliability of characters’ perceptions of events and of one another are explored through different narrative perspectives. There is no single authoritative voice in the novel, as it alternates between first-person narration by Agnes, and third-person narration, primarily from the perspectives of Tóti and Margrét. Switching between perspectives creates suspense and prevents the reader from getting too engrossed or dependant on one narrator. The prejudices of other characters and the perception of Agnes as a hardened criminal are explored through third-person narration. First-person narration allows Agnes to intimately and selectively convey her experience to other characters, and to convey to the reader her fears of sharing those experiences.

The emotive and intimate exchanges between Agnes and her captors contrasts heavily to the historical documents that open each chapter of the book. The documents add an authenticity and depth to the story while also dehumanising and damning Agnes and her co-accused. The absolute damnation by the courts is conveyed at the outset in letters from District Commissioner Björn Blöndal, who writes ‘…after the anticipated authorisation from the Supreme Court in Copenhagen, I intend to execute the Illugastadir murderers’.  The bleakness of Agnes’ existence is exemplified through court documentation of her meagre belongings, which include ‘a white sack with useless odds and ends in it’ and ‘an old shift of faded blue’. The public perception of Agnes as a calculated murderer is communicated through the poems of Poet-Rósa, which include the lines ‘For you have stolen with your scheming / he who gave my life meaning, / and thrown your life to the Devil to deal.’

While Agnes’ story is bleak, Burial Rites is by no means a depressing read, as hope is offered by questioning those in power and by providing a voice to the powerless. Hannah Kent is currently working on her second book, a historical novel set in 19th-century Ireland.

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