Reviewed by Annis
A stunning evocation of time and place, Burial Rites is based on the true story of the last person ever to be executed in Iceland, “a landless workmaid raised on a porridge of moss and poverty”.
Iceland in 1828 remains untouched by the Industrial Revolution. Its simple rural lifestyle has changed little since fiercely independent Vikings settled here in the ninth century. Widely scattered settlements of subsistence farmers on family smallholdings still eke out a living from this starkly beautiful land, steeped in bloodthirsty legend. Although stern Lutheranism now rules, superstitions linger and the Icelandic Sagas hold as firm a place in the national consciousness as the Bible.
In a small, parochial society, the shocking murders of Pétur Jónsson and Natan Ketilsson at Illugastadir in northern Iceland cause a sensation. Among those convicted of the crime is Natan’s housekeeper/lover, Agnes Magnúsdóttir. To the horror of his family, District Officer Jón Jónsson is instructed to hold Agnes at his farm until her execution can be arranged.
Months go by and initial fear and revulsion fade to wary acceptance as Agnes shares the communal burden of hard, physical labour necessary for life in a harsh climate. Beneath the everyday surface, though, disturbing ripples eddy and swirl around her, altering the nuances of relationships and stirring up complex emotions of sympathy and hostility, exacerbated by the long, enforced intimacy of winter.
Moving to the inexorable rhythm of the tides and the seasons, the cycle of life and death, Burial Rites’ saga-spare prose belies the subtly layered depth of its characterization. Can Agnes be seen as a reliable narrator of her own tragedy? Is she guilty or innocent? Mistress of manipulation or victim? Sometimes the heart keeps its secrets: it seems fitting that this knowing but unknowable woman should remain a haunting mystery right to the end, even as her forlorn cry pierces us through with pity: “I am knifed to the hilt with fate”. (2013; 336 pages, including Author's Note, Notes on Icelandic Names, and map.)More about Burial Rites at Powell's Books, Amazon.com or The Book Depository
* since Iceland was settled by Scandinavians, I've put the listing on a "Europe" page, there being no page category for betwixt-and-between island nations like Iceland, after the medieval period. For more novels with Icelandic settings, see the Medieval Scandinavia and the Vikings page.