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First Posted: 9/30/2013

In “Burial Rites” by Hannah Kent, readers are given a fictional account of an infamous historic event bounded by ambiguity. For her debut novel, Kent, an Australian native, has managed to solidify a mysterious plot by cementing it in reality. The story begins in 1829 at the height of a Nordic murder trial. Agnes Magnúsdóttir, a young Icelandic housekeeper, is charged with two counts of murder. As internationally publicized, Agnes’s trial results in a most unfortunate demise.

After a raging fire, two men are found dead: Natan Ketilsson, the owner of the farmhouse, and Pétur Jónsson, a guest. Within a short time, authorities recognize that the fire was merely a ruse. Both victims, demonstrating fatal stab wounds, were likely murdered prior to the fire. As a result, Agnes, the housekeeper, becomes a lead suspect, her fate now resting in the hands of the victim’s brother.

As the protagonist, Agnes is a monumental character. While she awaits trial, her only source of solace becomes Reverend Tóti, a young priest, who is sympathetic to her case. Here, Kent places readers with Agnes, undergoing what would be comparable to women accused of black magic during the Salem Witch Trials.

Kent adds such vivid and creative depth to authentic figures that readers seemingly feel the plot becoming a part of the true history. Of course, these romanticized aspects only make the reader question what Agnes’s future might have been if history had indeed been altered. Unfortunately, without much compassion, the overarching narrative becomes increasingly dismal. While Reverend Tóti offers Agnes finality and consideration, readers know all too well that Agnes’s fate is doomed:

“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 away from me in a gray 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?”

Readers slowly begin to obtain more details throughout the novel that make them question who was truly guilty. Regardless, as documented in history, Agnes’s fate was inescapable. Her judgment results in what would become the last public execution in Icelandic history, ultimately showcasing the changing beliefs of capital punishment.

In the end, readers can imagine John Updike’s words like billowing smoke signals: “The essential self is innocent, and when it tastes its own innocence, knows that it lives forever.”

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