Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

A Killer and Her Death-Row Custodians

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

A Killer and Her Death-Row Custodians

Article excerpt

Hannah Kent's novel explores murders that occurred in 1820s Scandinavia.

Burial Rites. By Hannah Kent. 322 pages. Little, Brown & Company. $26.

In 1828, an Icelandic servant named Agnes Magnusdottir was convicted of killing her employer and another man, then burning their bodies. Pending ratification of her death sentence in Denmark, which then controlled Iceland, she was interned for many months on an isolated farm. Hannah Kent's fictional take on this promising material was written, she explains in an author's note, "to supply a more ambiguous portrayal" of a woman who has commonly been seen as a "witch, stirring up murder."

The historical family compelled to serve as Agnes's death-row custodians must have been as reluctant to take on the job, at least initially, as the characters Ms. Kent has based on them -- District Officer Jon Jonsson; his ailing wife, Margret; and their two daughters. An equally hesitant young clergyman, also based on a real figure, soon enters the novel when he's dispatched to the farm to act as Agnes's spiritual guide.

While the tensions and evolving relationships between Agnes and her host family are generally well realized, Ms. Kent's Reverend Toti remains a stereotype: meek, callow, indecisive and given to pious, predictable counsel. The author tries to build him into something more complex, but it's hard to tease fullness from what starts out flat. As the novel proceeds, Ms. Kent simply reverses Toti's initial generic traits -- he becomes less meek, more decisive -- but these changes are too schematic to generate a layered character.

Toti does, however, learn to listen better, sensing that the condemned woman, after 34 years of itinerant poverty, needs a sympathetic ear, not sanctimonious prattle. And so, a little predictably, he becomes a medium through whom Agnes reveals her story. In addition to sections seen from the viewpoints of Toti and the others, Ms. Kent provides first-person monologues from Agnes, along with historical documents translated and adapted from the Icelandic originals. While these varied perspectives help elaborate the ambiguous portrait Ms. Kent intends, the most effective passages -- both in adding nuance to Agnes's character and in spinning her story -- are those told in Agnes's unmediated voice, at least once the narrative has picked up momentum.

In one affecting passage, she recalls how her foster mother went into premature labor during a calamitous winter storm. These gripping pages demonstrate the way narrative urgency can discipline a writer's style and pre-empt self-indulgence, a flaw that's far too common in the book's earlier monologues. There Agnes operatically ponders ("I hear footsteps, awful coming footsteps"; "I am run through and through with disaster; I am knifed to the hilt with fate"), poeticizing even her wounds, the bruises "blossoming like star clusters under the skin. …

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