x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Historic execution drama

A young woman is sentenced to death by the executioner’s axe in Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites.

It’s Iceland in 1829, and Agnes Magnúsdóttir has been found guilty of arson and conspiracy to murder her lover Natan Keetilsson and sentenced to death by executioner’s axe. Agnes is sent to spend her last months on the remote farmstead of Jón Jónsson and his family, who try their best to ignore her and Tóti, a young priest charged with bringing the condemned woman into God’s grace.

The bare facts of Hannah Kent’s first novel are taken from history – Iceland carried out its last public execution in 1830 when a man and a woman were beheaded by their victim’s brother – and historic documents punctuate a narrative that constantly changes perspective. The seasons, the harsh existence of farm life, the Jónsson family’s sense of shock and anger and Agnes’s sympathetic voice all ring surprisingly true considering that Kent is a 28-year-old Australian who only travelled to Iceland in her teens. But the author’s real success lies in her deft and evocative use of language as a tense story builds to the inevitable conclusion.