In spite of its forbidding locale and historical import, this tragic tale is not unfamiliar in women’s history, a female made victim of patriarchal society and a penchant to take the opinions of authorities as truth, to discard the testimony of “the weaker sex.” The re-creation of an actual event in Iceland in 1828, Burial Rites describes the final days of convicted murderer Agnes Magnusdottir as she is prepared for death by Thorvardur (“Toti”), a priest-in-training whom Agnes has specially requested. Removed from confinement and placed in the home of a local family, the filthy, lice-riddled criminal is reluctantly accepted by the family on the orders of their District Commissioner, Bjorn Blondal.
Along with two other servants, Agnes stands accused of brutally murdering Natan Ketilsson and Petur Jonsson. The others, sixteen-year-old Siggi and Fredrik Sigurdsson, are taken elsewhere, though Siggi is later granted an appeal while Fredrik is executed with Agnes. The particulars of the murders are irrelevant, as the authorities have conducted a trial that strictly conforms to their assumptions of the reasons for the murders and the motives of the perpetrators. Agnes, older than the others at thirty-three, is immediately presumed guilty, her execution a foregone conclusion, a formality but for the necessity of her preparation to meet her maker.
Throughout the novel, which is as chilling as the frozen landscape in which the murders are committed, Agnes is seen as a villainess—untrustworthy, dangerous, an anomaly and a misfit. A child cast on the mercy of the community from an early age, Agnes is both motherless and fatherless, without sanctuary or opportunity, cast from one situation to another as she works as a servant for families offering her food and shelter. Jon and Margret Jonsson and their daughters, Steina and Lauga, have no choice but to accept the criminal. Margret forces Agnes to scrub away accumulated filth and lice before entering the household. While Agnes enters the home shrouded in shame, the assumptions of the family and society are not supported as she tells her story to the priest, Toti, who learns that his attention to her words is far more important than preaching the word of God. Toti develops empathy for this strange woman who is not a monster but the victim of her circumstances.
Agnes speaks of the first meeting with Natan, the start of a friendship that grows into something more. Natan, a brilliant but quirky man, is given to extreme moods and strange acquaintances. Agnes moves to Illugastadir as housekeeper only to find her position not as secure as she imagined. As a complex drama unfolds between Natan, his servants and hired help, the dark scenario of a bloody night becomes the scene of death, the truth of which only Agnes, Siggi and Fredrik know but which is refashioned by those who would pass sentence and strike a blow for righteousness and morality. Battered by icy winds and the indifference of others, Agnes tells a story of abandonment, loneliness and friendlessness, taken in by a man harboring his own vices.
The final chapters strip the novel of any pretense at justice. Agnes moves inexorably toward the end of her life, supported by Toti and a family that has grown to view her plight through the eyes of compassion, powerless to change what has been set in place. History bears witness to a travesty: a woman at the mercy of the merciless, superstition and gossip turning her actions into those made monstrous by wagging, titillated tongues. In spite of this, Kent’s protagonist shines through the circumstances of her demise, re-imagined in flesh and blood: “I am knifed to the hilt with fate.”