AUTHOR: HANNAH KENT
Details: Received from Picador
Fact: The last person ever to be executed in Iceland was Agnes Magnúsdóttir for her part in the murder of Natan Ketilsson and Pétur Jónsson. Agnes and her accomplice Fridrik Sigurdsson, were beheaded on January 12, 1830.
Fact: Agnes spent the months leading up to her execution with a family at Kormsá.
I could go on. This book’s story is fictionalised fact and as such is beautiful, thought-provoking and totally heartbreaking. In a narrative told from various points of view the reader is introduced to Agnes while she is being held prisoner under conditions you wouldn’t submit an animal to. When she is moved to a new location at Kormsá she is filthy, weak and sullen. The Jónsson family she is to stay with until her sentence will be executed, is anxious and hostile, faced with the prospect of harbouring a convicted murderess under their roof. Assistant reverend Thorvardur (Tóti) Jónsson is given the task of seeing to the soul and redemption of Agnes, as requested by her. During her months at Kormsá, Agnes slowly shares her story. We read about her desperate childhood, her hard life, the short glimpse of hope and the devastation that followed.
This is a fascinating story for various reasons. The fact that everything written in this book is based on real events makes this a harrowing tale to read at times. The murders, as described in this book, are gruesome and the way Agnes is initially portrayed makes it all too easy to believe that she is the cold-hearted murderess her judges make her out to be. It is only as Agnes slowly opens herself up to Tóti and to Margrét Jónsson that the reader is getting an insight into who this woman was, what may have led to the murders and what, if anything, her role in those may have been. By the time the axe has fallen and the story is finished, it is up to the reader to decide for themselves what to think of this woman, and what to believe – about her and about what exactly happened.
The story is told in a wonderful way. The words used are sparse yet lyrical. On these pages the rough and barren landscape of Iceland comes alive. The claustrophobic living quarters, the isolation of some people, the harsh living conditions and the brutal weather all enhance the feeling of gloom and despair in this story.
I loved the way in which the developing relationships between the characters in this story are described. The gradual transition from out and out hostility to something almost resembling kinship is made all the more realistic by the fact that there is no clear turning point. The Jónsson family and Agnes, being forced to live and work together in a small space for an extended period of time, get closer to each other almost despite themselves. By the time Agnes is taken away to face her sentence it is clear to the family that the woman who is leaving in no way resembles the monster they initially believed her to be. And, most heartbreakingly of all, Agnes is taken to her death from what has probably been the best house and family she has ever stayed and worked with.
I liked the way the author plays with her readers in this book. We know that what we are reading is fictionalised fact and as such know that not everything we read is completely true. We know that the author has no way of knowing what Agnes may have thought and felt at the time or even what exactly happened on the night of the murders. Hannah Kent puts an interesting spin on this idea by making Agnes into a not quite reliable narrator:
“This is what I tell the Reverend.”
Is she just spinning him a tale, portraying herself in the best possible light? Or is this just a statement of fact? Hannah Kent cleverly leaves it up to the reader to make that decision, and in doing so makes the story even more intriguing than it already was.
The language in this book is beautiful and thought-provoking:
“It was only later that our tongues produced landslides, that we became caught in the cracks between what we said and what we meant, until we could not find each other, did not trust the words in our own mouths.”
Time and again sentences like that forced me to stop reading to think about what I had just read and marvel at the depth and beauty.
It is hard to believe that this is Hannah Kent’s first novel. This book is so beautifully written and so wonderfully well constructed that it feels like the work of a seasoned author with years of experience. If this book sets the standard, than us readers have some treats to look forward to from this author in years to come.
Finally, I want to end this review with an Icelandic saying I came across in this book. A saying that will resound in the soul of everybody who loves reading: