My list of “books-that-I-know-are-good-but-which-also-involve-large-amounts-of-suffering” has been growing faster than I feel able to actually tackle the books on them.
Burial Rites, based on the story of Agnes Magnusdottir, the last woman to be executed in Iceland, is one of them, but as someone from book club was offering to lend it out, I decided that I’d take suffering if it was being given away for free.
Suffering aside, I’ve always been a bit suspicious of fiction based on real people. For example, I never saw the point of Anthony and Cleopatra, which was on our A-level syllabus. Firstly, if you know what’s going to happen, how can there be any suspense? How can there be any development in the story when we know how it is going to end? Secondly, isn’t it slightly cheeky, or even exploitative, to take a real person, who had real thoughts and feelings, and make a representation of their story?
Burial Rites transcended both those questions.
The book was the result of a doctoral research project by Australian student Hannah Kent, who got a grant to travel to Iceland. As a result of this first hand experience, the bleakness and beauty of the landscape are stunningly evoked, but it’s more than a travelogue, it’s also a detailed reproduction of the ways that the communities lived. Obviously eking out a living was a really tough deal in those conditions. About 40% of the population were servants, living communally in big attics. They served a farming middle class, but life for these middle classes was pretty rough too. Because of the lack of prison facilities in Iceland, Agnes was housed one one of these farms until her execution, and the occupants of these houses suffered from the cold and damp as much as their servants did, with the added financial headache of how to manage the weathering of their homes.
The story is really about the effect that Agnes had on this family and the effect that they had on her, as well as the gradual drawing out of the mystery surrounding the night of the double murder for which Agnes was convicted.
The depth of Kent’s research puts paid to any idea of exploitation – she’s keen to tell the real stories of what life was like for real people. Also, the emotional processes of what Agnes might have been going through are also very sensitively and thoughtfully mapped out. In a bid to comfort her, one of the characters tells Agnes, “You will be remembered.” And she replies, “I don’t want to be remembered, I want to live.” I thought this was a neat take on the reader’s relationship with “execution fiction”; it’s the kind of thing I have found myself thinking about Jane Grey, for example, that the only thing I can do for her is to remember her, when in reality being remembered wasn’t in the least bit of use to her…
I also thought that the idea of wanting to live was an interesting theme of the book. Margaret, the mother of the farming family charged with holding Agnes, is slowly dying of a lung condition. The life Agnes led up to the murder is portrayed as containing precious little warmth or love, so little in fact that she seems to have retreated into an emotionally numb state, constantly on the defensive against more suffering. The lives of the Icelanders, whatever class they belong to, is hemmed in, by the mountains, by the limited yields of the ground, by their cramped living conditions, by the expectations of society, by the inevitability of death. Both women are dying from the day they are born. But by meeting, something transcendental starts to happen to these women, and they start to live in a way they never did before.
It makes me wonder: if the Agnes in the book had never been convicted of the murder, would she ever have had cause to say “I want to live?” Ultimately, that’s what made this book uplifting, rather than depressing, to read. It reminded me about the things that make it wonderful to be alive: kindness, beauty, love.