Who is Agnes?

Little, Brown and Company, 2013

Little, Brown and Company, 2013

“Criminal. The word hangs in the air. Heavy, unmoved by the bluster of the wind.
I want to shake my head. That word does not belong to me, I want to say. It doesn’t fit me or who I am. It’s another word, and it belongs to another person.
But what is the use of protesting against language.”

Is there any use?

Can understanding be shifted any more easily than language?

“Agnes Jónsdóttir. She sounds like the woman I should have been. A housekeeper in a croft that overlooks the valley, with a husband by her side, and a kip of children to help sing  home the sheep at twilight. To teach and frighten with stories of ghosts. To love. She could even be the sister of Sigurlaug and Steinvör Jónsdóttir. Margrét’s daughter. Born blessed under a marriage. Born into a family that would not be ripped apart by poverty.”

But Burial Rites is not the story of either Agnes.

Not Agnes the criminal. Though Burial Rites does offer another perspective on the crimes this woman was charged with on the official record in Iceland in 1828.

Not Agnes Jónsdóttir. Who doesn’t even properly exist in fiction, only in the imagined mind of the main character in Hannah Kent’s debut novel.

This is the story of another Agnes, an Agnes who might have been.

The importance of having an audience is underscored for this work and, in this version, the readers are the audience for this other version of a woman whose story has been largely lost beyond the facts recorded beyond the historical record of this crime and the judicial process which spiralled outward.

Agnes craves an audience, which she receives literally in the form of a priest and has longed for emotionally.

“For the first time in my life, someone saw me, and I loved him because he made me feel I was enough.”

But story-telling is complex. And the versions of the crime abound. Even the victim loves to keep people guessing.

“Stories have a way of boiling over, and Natan himself liked to keep people guessing.”

And as much as Agnes craves a listener, a witness, she also privately wonders whether the act of speaking holds any meaning.

“Sometimes, after talking to the Reverend, my mouth aches. My tongue feels so tired; it slumps in my mouth like a dead bird, all damp feathers, in between the stones of my teeth.”

Her situation seems futile, even from the start, and she is not the only character who struggles with the events of the story past and present.

“Autumn fell upon the valley like a gasp. Margrét, lying awake in the extended gloom of the October morning, her lungs mossy with mucus, wondered at how the light had grown slow in coming; how it seemed to stagger through the window, as though weary from travelling such a long way.”

Agnes must ask: what remains when there appears to be no solution?

In part, the following passage can be viewed as an answer to that unasked question. But it also reveals the lyrical quality of Hannah Kent’s prose, the thematic concerns of the novel, the cultural and historical context, and the storyteller’s preoccupation with voice,

“I remain quiet. I am determined to close myself to the world, to tighten my heart and hold what has not yet been stolen from me. I cannot let myself slip away. I will hold what I am inside, and keep my hands tight around all the things I have seen and heard, and felt. The poems composed as I washed and scythed and cooked until my hands were raw. The sagas I know by heart. I am sinking all I have left and going underwater. If I speak, it will be in bubbles of air. They will not be able to keep my words for themselves. They will see the whore, the madwoman, the murderess, the female dripping blood into the grass and laughing with her mouth choked with dirt. They will say ‘Agnes’ and see the spider, the witch caught in the webbing of her own fateful weaving. They might see the lamb circled by ravens, bleating for a lost mother. But they will not see me. I will not be there.”

Burial Rites is a captivating novel. Is it on your bookshelves or your TBR?