Book review: Burial Rites By Hannah Kent (Picador, £12.99)

The true story of a 19th-century murder is told with a stark, tragic trajectory

One of the best “Scandinavian” crime novels I have read, Burial Rites is the work of an Australian who visited Iceland on a cultural exchange. Based on a true 19th-century story, this powerful book has the stark and tragic trajectory of the sagas, where a veneer of Christianity cannot conceal a bleak and stoic belief in the workings of fate. Old superstitions are rife, convicted murderers face the barbaric penalty of death by beheading with an axe, yet the rites of Christianity are enforced.

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In 1829, three people in a remote farmstead are convicted of the murder of their employer, beaten and stabbed to death. One of the accused, a servant woman in her thirties, is sent to work for a local family while she waits for a court in faraway Copenhagen to decide her fate, which, if there is no mitigation, will be death. 

Chained and half-starved, Agnes Magnusdottir is initially regarded as a monster, but gradually the mother of the family and the young priest who attends her, come to realise that the story was far more complex than the facts presented in court. The dead man was not a simple farmer but something with resonances in an ancient past and a highly manipulative personality. Confined with him in the isolation of a deep Nordic winter were two women and a lusty young man. As one character says, “It’s hard to be alone in winter”. The urges and paranoia that can overtake humans in such circumstances are unflinchingly presented.

Hannah Kent’s prose is extraordinarily terse and precise as she tells the story from several different viewpoints: the older housewife whose health is failing, the priest who has to oppose fellow-clergy in his sympathy for the “murderess”, and that of Agnes herself, whose struggle for survival amid the harshest of landscapes and the cruelty of human beings is described with vivid intensity.

Yet the beauty and fascination of this way of life is movingly portrayed, as is the spirit of its highly literate people. Kent’s immersion in Icelandic lore seems total, though she came from the other side of the world. Great stories are universal.