A little while back I read Australian author Hannah Kent’s second novel “The Good People”, a dark sombre tale set in nineteenth century Ireland with superstition and folklore battling against religion and common sense. A friend, who read and loved it recommended I seek out Kent’s debut and I am very glad I have.
This writer can certainly do atmosphere. The claustrophobic smoke-filled peat huts of village Ireland are here replaced by the darkness, freezing conditions and damp wool of nineteenth century Iceland. Like “The Good People” Kent has used a real-life case for this historical crime novel. Here it is the plight of Agnes Magnusdottir whose claim for infamy is that she was the last person to be executed for murder in Iceland in 1834.
Following a spell in prison after the death of two men Agnes is sent out to lodge with a local official’s family to await her beheading and to get access to a local minister who would attempt to set her back on the right path. Agnes had previously spent some time in the area where she had met a young Reverend who she nominates as the man to meet with her. With an Icelandic winter approaching escape from her situation is unlikely and she becomes involved with the work of the family in their preparation for winter.
Her tale is largely told in the one room of the farm with the family and workers, understandably wary of the murderess in their midst, listening in.
This is some debut with Kent totally abandoning the “write what you know” advice to recreate nineteenth century Iceland. She had spent some time in the country as an exchange student. This was when the location of the real-life Agnes’ execution was pointed out to here but this novel obviously required a vast amount of research and immersion into the environment to give its intense atmosphere and make it totally convincing. Her absorption of Icelandic sagas is incorporated into the narrative style of the novel. This is backed up with good use of documents and reports, which I’m loving in crime novels at the moment and which was the real strength of “His Bloody Project” another nineteenth century tale of murder in a small, isolated community.
The fate of Agnes and the truth about her incarceration is central to the novel and the theme of the woman outside the norm being seen as somehow wicked is a fairly universal one for the time when it was set. Agnes could have indeed worked as a character in Victorian England but what Kent would have not been able to achieve is this intensity, the claustrophobia, the darkness and dampness nor the vivid impression of the life of these Icelandic folk.
If asked to choose between the two I might give “The Good People” a slight edge because I really enjoyed the way it incorporated Irish folklore into the story. These two novels show Kent as a writer with so much potential. I was also fascinated by the author’s account of the writing of this novel in the back of the paperback edition I read.
Burial Rites was published by Picador in 2013.