‘They said I must die. They said that I stole the breaths from men, and now they must steal mine. I imagine, then, that we are all candle flames, greasy-bright, fluttering in the darkness and the howl of the wind, and in the stillness of the room I hear footsteps, awful coming footsteps, coming to blow me out and send my life up away from me in a grey wreath of smoke.’
In northern Iceland, 1829, Agnes Magnúsdóttir is condemned to death for her part in the brutal murder of her lover.
Agnes is sent to wait out her final months on the farm of district office Jón Jónsson, his wife and their two daughters. Horrified to have a convicted murderer in their midst, the family avoid contact with Agnes. Only Tóti, the young assistant priest appointed Agnes’s spiritual guardian, is compelled to try to understand her. As the year progresses and the hardships of rural life force the household to work side by side, Agnes’s story begins to emerge and with it the family’s terrible realisation that all is not as they had assumed.
This novel is a real beauty. If you’re a fan of historical fiction I urge you to take a look at this wonderfully crafted lyrical tale about the last woman executed in Iceland.
For a debut this is a considerable and well-executed story. The writing feels very accomplished and draws you in immediately. There’s a subtle beauty to it too, resembling clearly the atmosphere and the setting the narrative takes place in. Iceland feels, all at once, beautiful but raw and unforgiving and as the reader, you wonder if this parallels with the lead character, Agnes Magnúsdóttir. There is a melancholy air that lingers over the text, demonstrating the suffocating final Icelandic winter before her execution. It is full of earthy details that resonate deeply. At first, you feel very distant towards Agnes, this icy woman accused of murdering her former employer and lover but slowly, as the story unfolds, you begin to peel back the layers and see her for who she is.
Told from multiple perspectives, the cast of characters is also well-drawn. The family that takes her in comprise a matriarch, Margret, her husband, Jon, and their daughters, Steina and Lauga. Margret is initially offended by Agnes’ presence and sets her to work around their farm. The family view Agnes as monstrous and wonder what caused her to kill two men, thieve their property and try to disguise the murders by burning the house down. Agnes requests a priest, Toti, to attend her during her final months and he begins to tease out, gently, the strands of her life. The reader sees how the death of Natan pains Agnes; she lives with guilt and grief constantly. When she learns that the other woman complicit in the murders, Sigga, is due to be pardoned she collapses into a state of mania. The isolation she feels is conveyed very strongly. Through her conversations with Toti, her past comes to the fore and the poignant tale of Natan’s death is revealed. Emotional motivations carry the weight of this book and drive it to its inevitable conclusion. In the end, the family rally behind Agnes, orphaned, a victim of a twist of fate.
There is a real strength that underscores this fictional account based on true events. Hannah Kent spent a considerable amount of time researching the case of Agnes and while it is entirely supposition, she seeks to ‘supply a more ambiguous portrayal of this woman’ which she does very well – a real slow burner that you invest deeply in. It is a true elegy for Agnes until the very last word.