Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Fictional accounts of real murder cases can do a lot more than simply tell the events of record. When they’re done well, such accounts can shed light on the people involved. And they can offer ideas about what might have motivated a crime. Such stories can be difficult to do well. It’s not easy to strike a balance between telling a good story and being faithful to the actual events. Let’s take a look at such a novel today, and turn the spotlight on Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites.
This novel is the fictional retelling of the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, who was one of the last people to be executed for murder in Iceland. The execution took place in early 1830, but the story begins in 1828, when two farmers, Natan Ketilsson and Pétur Jónsson, are murdered, allegedly by Agnes Magnúsdóttir, Friðrik Sigurðsson, and Sigrídur ‘Sigga’ Gudmondsdóttir. The three suspects are arrested and imprisoned, and deliberations are held as to what their fates will be.
After hearing testimony, it’s determined that all three suspects are guilty and will be executed. Agnes is sent to Kornsá, to live with District Officer Jón Jónsson, his wife, Margrét, and their two daughters, Steina and Lauga. The arrangement will, so officials think, benefit everyone. The family gets the benefit of Agnes’ work on the farm. They’ll also be compensated financially. Agnes will benefit from living with an ‘upstanding, Christian’ family during her last weeks and months. And the government will not have the responsibility for feeding and housing Agnes.
The family isn’t at all happy about having a condemned murderer under their roof. But they don’t have very much choice in the matter. So, they make room for Agnes. At first, they’re very wary, and for the most part, keep their distance. But little by little, Steina and, later, Margrét, get to know Agnes just a little. And as they do, they get a much more complex portrait of her than they had imagined.
In the meantime, Agnes has requested that Assistant Reverand Thorvardur ‘Tóti’ Jónsson provide spiritual counseling to her. He’s not sure at first why she chose him. But it soon comes out that they once met briefly, and she thought him a kind person. Little by little Agnes shares her story both with Tóti and with Margrét. As she does, we learn her history, as well as that of the other two people accused. And that history explains how these three people got involved with the victims, and why they killed them.
This is a fictional account of a real case. So, there is no doubt, even from the beginning, of who the killers are. This isn’t a speculative novel where the author suggests another hypothesis. Rather, Kent delves into the characters, and suggests what their motives were and how it was that these people ended up the way they did. Because it’s the story of a real set of murders and their investigation, Kent also includes copies of letters, notices, and other authentic information.
The story takes place in 1829/1830 Iceland, and that time and place are clearly conveyed. Readers learn a great deal about the lives of ‘regular’ people in north Iceland in those days. Lifestyles, social structures, socioeconomic issues, and other aspects of culture are portrayed, as is the area’s set of traditions. Kent doesn’t gloss over the harshness of average people’s lives at that time, so some of the story is quite gritty. There is violence, too. But (at least for me) the violence is not out of proportion to the story.
That historical context plays a major role in the way the case is prosecuted and in the way the prisoners are treated, especially Agnes. As it is, she’s had a difficult life. She was illegitimate, with no real home of her own, and no parents in her life. She’s a simple farm maid, rather low on the social pecking order, and that’s made worse by the fact of her ‘low’ birth. The sexist nature of the culture of the day has also put her on a lower social rung because she’s a woman. She’s regarded as the ‘mastermind’ behind the killings, which makes people shun her even more.
And yet, she is perceptive and intelligent, and has learned a great deal about herbal remedies and other natural healing solutions. She has a great deal of grace and dignity, which doesn’t always serve her well, especially when she’s dealing with people who would prefer her to cower. And some people are a little wary of her intelligence. It all serves to make her rather an enigmatic character. Still, since part of the story is told from her perspective (first person), we learn a lot about what she’s thinking. She feels things, as it turns out, much more deeply than most people believe.
Other parts of the story are told in third person, from Margrét’s, Tóti’s, Steina and Lauga’s points of view. Readers who prefer only one point of view, and all in past tense, will notice this. That said, it’s not a difficult matter to keep track of whose perspective is being shared at any time.
A note is also in order about the language of the novel. It takes places in Iceland, so there are several Icelandic terms and names used. There is a pronunciation guide at the beginning of my edition of the story, and Kent uses context to lend meaning to words that readers might not know.
Burial Rites offers an in-depth and thoughtful examination of one murder case, and of the people most closely involved in it. Kent uses documents and other information from the times to tell the personal stories of the various characters, and places those stories in the historical and geographic contexts in which they actually took place. But what’s your view? Have you read Burial Rites? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 16 January/Tuesday, 17 January – An Easy Thing – Paco Ignacio Taibo II
Monday, 23 January/Tuesday, 24 January – What Remains Behind – Dorothy Fowler
Monday, 30 January/Tuesday, 31 January – Murder in Bollywood – Shadaab Amjad Khan