Iceland might be a swinging place now, but it wasn’t so in the 1820s. People lived on farmsteads that only survived through endless toil. Everything was filthy; the country was chilly even in summer; and society was ruled by a joyless, punitive piety. The death penalty consisted of being separated from your head via order of His Majesty in Denmark. Such is the setting for Australian writer Hannah Kent’s dark but humane first novel, Burial Rites.

Agnes Magnúsdøttir is a pauper and serving woman who’s been arrested and condemned to death for the murder of her employer and lover, Natan, a man looked upon by the country folk as a shady character—his very name is a play on the name Satan, it’s said. To be fair, he is miserably cruel. He hits Agnes and never considers her as anything more than a comfort woman. He has a baby with another woman and sleeps with the other serving girl. But Agnes, who narrates much of the otherwise third-person narrative, remains in love with Natan. So why would she murder him? And if she didn’t kill him, why doesn’t she proclaim her innocence?

Because there are no prisons in their region of Iceland, Agnes is sent to live with the family of a district officer. This isn’t as comfortable as it sounds, for the family at the farm at Kornså are only a tad less poor than other local farmers. The officer’s consumptive wife, Margrét, resents Agnes’ invasion of her home, until her own natural goodness and maternal instincts take over. But the younger daughter loathes Agnes, while the older is strangely drawn to her almost from the beginning. Added to the mix is the callow assistant reverend, nicknamed Tøti, whom Agnes calls upon to be her confessor and who quickly becomes fascinated with her.

Kent has a sturdy grasp of place and history, as well as a talent for creating memorable characters—from Margrét’s family to their eternally pregnant and gossipy neighbor and the uncertain and smitten young priest. And, of course, Agnes. In this day and age, it’s not politically correct to admire a woman who’s in thrall to a brute like Natan, but there’s no doubt of Agnes’ strength of character, her wisdom and practicality (in things other than love) and her essential, vulnerable humanity. Based on a true story, Burial Rites gives us a vivid portrayal of a distant time and land that still somehow feels familiar.

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