Top positive review
a vivid if chilling picture of life - and murder - in C19 Iceland
on 25 September 2017
In 1828 in rural Iceland, three people are convicted of murdering two others. As Agnes Magnusdottir waits to be executed, she is given into the reluctant care of a faing family until sentence can be carried out. A young assistant minister is assigned as her spiritual mentor.
Based on real events and much research, the novel paints a vivid picture of a farming community in Iceland in 1828. Work is hard, unremitting, and at the mercy of the northern climate. Social strictures can be as unforgiving as the long, dark winters, with a casual cruelty that is too often disguised as religious respectability. Farms may be isolated but privacy is hard to come by with families and visitors sharing the communal living and sleeping space of the badstofa.
In this land of sagas, the stories people tell about others are not always true to actual life. The stories surrounding Agnes slowly unfold in third person supplemented with extracts from documents of the time. Agnes intersperses her thoughts in first person and her reflections add a depth of feeling and understanding to the narrative.
The story is definitely not 'feel-good’, but I would not describe it as miserable; fate may be cruel but humans can, and do, learn kindness. And the evocative writing is a pleasure to read, conjuring with almost physical intensity the sounds, smells, colours and textures of life at close quarters in this beautiful, harsh landscape. I found myself pulling an extra duvet over me, I was so convinced by the depiction of the cold.
If you don’t already know the end and want to keep the suspense, then don’t look up the actual case until after you’ve read it. Hannah Kent weaves an engrossing story of how it might have been.