Set in 1820s Iceland, Burial Rites is a novel based on the true story of Agnes Magnusdottir. In 1829, she was executed for a double homicide, the last person to be so sentenced in that country.c
At this time, Iceland is a backwater, provincial outpost whose officials have to answer to Copenhagen. There is no prison, so Agnes is sent to a farm to wait out her sentence. It’s a lonely place, and the family with whom she is staying (understandably) distrust her. She becomes close with the young clergyman sent to prepare her soul for the afterlife, and eventually, heartbreakingly, her full story comes out. As we hear of Agnes’ life, you get the sense that in this time and place, a woman like her never had a chance and that her fate was probably inevitable.
Burial Rites is not just the story of Agnes, though. It is rich with a sense of time and place, the descriptions of the stark Icelandic landscape vivid. We witness the effect Agnes has on those around her. As we near her execution time, the sense of dread is palpable. It’s a sad but beautifully written story.
It’s a sad, yet beautifully written story.