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A Brilliant Novel to Stir Your Senses

Updated: Dec 30, 2019

14 March 1828 - the true story of a horrible double murder takes place on the farm, Illugastaðir. The people in this story lived at various locations shown on the map below. The place of the murders, Illugastaðir, shown with the letter "I"; the place where the criminals were beheaded at Vatnsdalshólar - the "V"; and the burial location, Tjörn - the "T."

Illugastaðir (I), Vatnshólar (V), Tjörn (T)

Illugastaðir (I), Vatnshólar (V), Tjörn (T)

Hannah Kent, has authored a brilliant, 5-star novel called Burial Rites. You should read it whether you are Icelandic or not. The skilled blending of fiction and fact is on the same level as the books written by Iceland's Nobel Prize author, Halldór Laxness. In this book, Hannah fashions a story about actual events that led to the last public executions in Iceland.

Agnes Magnúsdóttir is the main character in the book and actually the last person beheaded in Iceland. I am haunted by the memory of Agnes. I want to learn more!

The writing in the novel is very illuminating. The wind, darkness, smells, and sights are vividly described and so very chilling, gut-wrenching, and raw. The loneliness, hunger, and cold are just totally heart-breaking. How she portrays family, government, neighbor, and servant relationships is so interesting. I continually had thoughts about my own ancestors in Iceland. How did their lives compare? Did they know Agnes or any of the other characters in this story? The burning of peat and dung for heat, the smoky and dirty turf houses -- it is the stark reality of that time period. Our ancestors lived in such difficult times and endured such tragedy, heartache, and loss.

Two quotes that stick out for me: In the beginning, we learn that Agnes was “raised on a porridge of moss and poverty.”At the end of the story, Margret says to Agnes, "There's more than one way a body can die" as Margrét is dying of tuberculosis and Agnes is awaiting her death sentence. The interplay and turmoil of the personal relationships and the descriptions of their lives kept me riveted until the very end. It was not depressing or scary - it was interesting and amazing that anyone survived the extreme conditions and hardships.

Because this novel is based on a true story, we know the ending. Agnes and Friðrik are beheaded because of their crimes. But the way this author tells the story is brilliant as she weaves the personal thoughts, actions, details of their life, and especially the ''WHY they did it'' into the novel. She brings you into the story. You undergo empathy, horror, thrills, and extreme sorrow.

Here are a few interesting, real-life facts that Hannah Kent left out of her novel:

This was the first execution in Iceland since 1790 when a woman in Skagafjörður was killed for secretly giving birth to a child out of wedlock. People were sentenced to death during the time between 1790 and 1830 but the deed had not been carried out in Iceland until Agnes and Friðrik.

The severed heads of Agnes and Friðrik were put on display on wooden posts, facing the road, to serve as a reminder to the people of Iceland. Later that night, the heads disappeared. Legends claim that one of the women in the neighborhood convinced her farmhands to secretly bury the heads.

About 100 years later, a woman living in Reykjavík - but with ties to the area, claimed she was having dreams and getting messages from Agnes. The spirit told this woman where the heads were buried. Eventually, the two skulls were found near the burial spots of the headless bodies. Apparently, the skulls were found exactly as described by the woman from Reykjavík. Wood splinters were even found in the skull of Agnes as her head had been jammed onto a wooden post along the roadside.

The bodies and heads of Agnes and Friðrik are now buried at the churchyard at Tjörn. The decorations from Agnes's clothes, along with the wood block and the axe sent to Iceland from Denmark to perform the dastardly deed, are in Iceland's National Museum.

As many of you know, I've had a bout with a brain infection that affected my eyesight (but this is almost resolved and is healing). A thoughtful friend, Christina Sunley, sent me an audio-book version of the novel, Burial Rites. Christina is the author of another favorite novel, The Tricking of Freya.

I do enjoy some audio books while driving but usually find them too slow-moving and boring compared to my own imaginative and speedy reading. But at home, I prefer a real book.

However, this audio-book had me riveted! Morven Christie does a wonderful job narrating this book. At first, I felt the urgency for her to read faster and wished I could just grab the novel and read it myself.

In a short while, though, I was thankful for her tempo and tone. The slower narration is actually very important. The story has so many details about life in Iceland. I even rewound it several times to re-listen and try to absorb all the details. At the end, the author explains her research and throughout includes court records and transcripts from the true events. This is one of the best books I have ever listened to and want to read the book now to gain more insight.

I highly recommend this book or audio-book. It is brilliant!

Genealogy of Agnes: Agnes Magnúsdóttir was born 27 Oct 1795 to a poor servant woman í Flaga, Undirfellssókn, Húnavatnssýsla with either an unmarried, poor farm hand or with the neighboring married farmer. Agnes was put into the foster/pauper system at the age of 6 and lived on various farms throughout her life as an unmarried servant. She was executed by beheading on 12 Jan 1830 á Þrístapar, Húnavatnssýsla and many years later, her bones were moved to the cemetery at Tjörn called Tjarnarkirkjugarður Vatnsnesi where she is buried with the other convicted criminal, Friðrik Sigurðsson.

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