I was very eager to check this book out. It got a lot of attention and praise, and the premise seemed interesting: it’s based on the real-life story of Agnes Magnusdottir, the last person to be executed in Iceland. She was beheaded in 1830 for her part in the gruesome murders of two men, one of them her employer, and the attempted cover-up by arson. Before the execution, she spent her last months at the rural home of Jon Jonsson, a middle-ranking official, and his family, a wife and two daughters. Iceland is a place that has always fascinated me, and I can’t say I’ve read many stories with it as a setting, so that made this book even more intriguing. Did it live up to the hype? Not really. I found it solid reading, but not that special, at least not consistently so.
The story itself doesn’t offer many surprises. You know from the start that it’s going to end with Agnes’ execution. It’s also pretty obvious that the family housing Agnes will eventually become more sympathetic to their servant/prisoner, and that Agnes will turn out to be not as guilty and monstrous as everybody thinks she is. A large section of the book is devoted to gradually uncovering the truth about Agnes’ backstory and the events of the night of the murders, and unfortunately the true story is not much more interesting than an average Law & Order episode.
That wouldn’t have mattered so much if the novel did a good job with the characters and the setting, but I don’t think that it quite succeeded on that front either. It’s perhaps unfair, but sometimes your impression of a book is coloured by the one you’ve just read beforehand. In my case it was Lives of Girls and Women by Alice Munro, who is one of my favourite authors and whose skill at evoking a sense of place and time, and writing about the texture and minutiae of everyday life, is simply astonishing. With that book still fresh in my mind, Burial Rites definitely suffered in comparison. It’s full of exotic Icelandic names and phrases, descriptions of the landscapes and farms, but for all I cared it could have been set in any remote, impoverished community – I got no real sense of either the early 19th century or the country it’s set in. If one of the characters suddenly got a mobile phone out I honestly doubt I would have noticed.
Agnes is easy to sympathise with, given her terrible fate and the privations she goes through before she’s placed with the Jonsson family. There’s also a point made that, unlike the other female servant caught up in the crime, she’s denied a lighter sentence because the society she lives in punishes the women it deems to be too smart for their own good. The chapters with her narration are written in a more lyrical, poetic language compared to the plainer, more functional style of the rest of the book. I’m guessing the author did it in order to highlight the difference between Agnes’ inner world and the outside reality in which she’s reviled by pretty much everyone, and these chapters do have some beautiful passages. At the same time though, this stylistic switch felt a tad contrived, and made Agnes feel remote even as she’s supposedly spilling her innermost thoughts and feelings. Of the supporting characters, Margret, Jon Jonsson’s tough, no-nonsense wife, is probably the best-realised one, and her interactions with Agnes are well done. Margret’s daughters, Lauga and Steina, start out promisingly but then retreat into the background, whereas Jon himself is a blur. Reverend Toti, a meek young priest who is assigned to be Agnes’ spiritual advisor and guide her back to God before death, never really rises above a stereotype.
Despite all that, I thought that the final chapter, which deals with Agnes’ final hours, was powerful stuff. Very haunting and emotional. It will probably stick with me for a while where the rest of the novel likely won’t.