Anything set in the Northern areas close to the Arctic circle grabs my attention. I am a sucker for Scandinavian mysteries. All that bleakness and those repressed inward looking emotions.
Reading an interview with Hannah Kent piqued my interest. Burial Rites is not so much an historical mystery as a saga. Set in 1829 Iceland, this is the fictional story behind condemned murderess Agnes Magnúsdóttir.
Wow! I think I reread the prologue to Butial Rites at least four times. The poetry inherent in the language grabs you instantly. The second sentence took my breath away with its childlike pathos. I was hooked! Kent's turn of phrase is rather wonderful such as when the District Commissioner, Bjorne Blondal, admonishes the Assistant Reverend Thorvardur Jonsson (Toti) that he might be ,'too pale in experience' for the task he is being given, that of spiritually counselling the murderess Agnes Magnúsdóttir.
I loved the scene where Toti leaves to begin his task and in a couple of paragraphs has revealed his uncertainties and prejudices. 'He silently mouthed the word to himself. Murderess. Mordingi. It slipped through his mouth like butter.' From there he goes to the heady idea of saving her (soul) for she is after all, 'my sister in Jesus.' Whom he meets is a flawed human, sister in pain. We see in Toti an emerging chrysalis, a spiritual brother breaking to compassionate person.
Kent masterfully builds tension and intrigue, layer upon layer, using exquisite descriptive language and contrasting thought as the characters reveal themselves all juxtaposed against an unforgiving landscape. Relations throughout are strained and restrained, free yet constrained particularly during the long winter travails.
Told mostly through Agnes, one empathizes with her struggles, the hardship of her life and her love betrayed. Toti and Margret, and others of this dispersed community ask the questions we might want to.
The warmth of the sumer sun and the smells during the haying, the contrasting winter cold, the odour of bodies sleeping in common spaces in the winter nights, the slaughtering and stench of blood and smoke, all are bought to life in quick, clever words framing the emotions of those met along the way.
Agnes story is a lament, a saga, where patches of brightness bloom, wither and die quickly. An unforgiving story sprung from a harsh and dour land, of a soul abandoned early on, setting the tone of her life to come. She is a free spirit and hampered by her knowing, yet unknowing grasp of relationships.
One of the most poignant moments of grace comes towards the end when Margret dresses Agnes for her execution.
And let's not forget the caring of, the Assistant Reverend, Toti as he steps with Agnes, frail human that he is, walking by her towards her fate with care and sorrow.
Kent's research is impeccable and her storytelling skills exquisite.
A NetGalley ARC