When Hannah Kent was 17, she went to Iceland on exchange for a year. She chose Iceland because she – a native Australian- had never seen snow. She fell in love with the country and she describes her first novel as a dark love letter to its natural landscape. The subject is Agnes Magnusdottir, the last woman to be executed in Iceland, and the novel’s timeline covers the months following her conviction to her execution in December 1830.
Agnes’s story exerted a natural pull. She is the Ned Kelly of Australia, said Kent at the Edinburgh Book Festival, in that she elicits strong responses from Icelanders to this day. Historical documents represent her in stereotypical terms. She is always described as monstrous or evil. I wanted to discover the ambiguity, complexity and humanity in her story. At the same time I was aware of being a foreigner. I had to be ethical and stick to the facts. However, there are lots of gaps in these facts and I have attempted to fill them using common sense, logic and informed speculation.
Agnes’s voice is written in a lyrical, metaphorical 1st person narrative, one in which the beauties of the landscape and its slow descent into winter are almost sung. She is given two confessors: a young inexperienced clergyman and the wife of an official designated her watcher. Agnes must be lodged in the family home, because there were no prisons in Iceland at that time. Naturally this causes no amount of consternation and anxiety as there are also two young daughters in the house.
The psychological tensions of having a convicted murderess inside the home are demonstrated matter-of-factly in 3rd person narratives from differing points of view. The interactions of the family and the clergyman with each other and with Agnes also provide a remarkable domestic social study of the early 19th century.
The juxtaposition of the 1st and 3rd person narratives together with the inclusion of bone dry, bureaucratic and entirely unsympathetic official documents of the time as well as some telling Icelandic poetry can be seen as the circling around an historical fact to arrive at the historical truth at the centre. Was Agnes Magnusdottir guilty of cold-blooded murder? Hannah Kent said she didn’t know when she was writing the novel because she was researching simultaneously. This, of course, helped with the pacing of Agnes’s revelations. It also ensured an immersive and absorbing read.
I haven’t read a debut this impressive since Stef Penney’s The Tenderness of Wolves.