I encourage anyone who hasn’t read this book to seriously put down whatever you’re doing, and hop to it. I picked it up last Saturday night, and when I put it down what felt like 3 minutes later, (but was actually closer to 2 hours) I was halfway through. It’s Hannah Kent’s debut novel, and the story itself of how the book came to be written is extraordinary. The writing is truly something else, lyrical but yet taut and very atmospheric- I read it with a growing sense of foreboding which I felt I could almost reach out and touch.
It’s based on the true story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last woman to be exiled in Iceland for her part in the murders of Natan Ketilsson and Pétur Jónsson in 1828. The novel tells the story of her last few months, in a combination of first person narrative and through the eyes of those around her- which I thought was a nice touch to keep the story moving, and not at all as jarring as it can feel penned by a lessor author. Some voices are sympathetic, like the young and compassionate preacher, Reverend Thorvadur “Tóti” Jónsson who Is Agnes’ self requested confessor, used as a vehicle for Agnes to voice her side of the story.
“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.”
Others, like District Commissioner Björn Blöndal, whose cruel, cold character emerges mostly from official translated documents peppered throughout the novel, illustrate the awful hand life has dealt Agnes.
“God has had His chance to free me, and for reasons known to Him alone, He has pinned me to ill fortune, and although I have struggled, I am run through and through with disaster; I am knifed to the hilt with fate.”
The novel begins just as the accused are to be sent to live on farms across rural Iceland, integrated into ‘good Christian families’ while they await the block. Agnes ends up in familiar surroundings, with the no nonsense Margret and the hardworking Jon and their kids, living out her days helping the family. Toti arrives to take her last confession, and finds himself falling under the spell of the murderess, realising that the case may not be as black and white as once thought.
“To know what a person has done, and to know who a person is, are very different things.”
I recommend this novel to anyone who is a fan of literary fiction, complex characters and a stomach for suffering and true crime. It’s honestly an extraordinarily haunting read, that leaves the characters etched in your mind for weeks to come.