The first thing that struck me about this story is its similarity to Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter: this is the story of a woman wearing not a literal A for adultery, but stigmatized with M for murderess. The second peculiar literary kinship is with Nabokov's Lolita, which portrays a villain as a sympathetic character, a protagonist committing obvious evil acts that the reader fights NOT to identify with and internally "root for" as we do most heroes/heroines. The protagonist in Burial Rites, however, is not so obviously evil, at least not to the extent that we can be absolutely sure of. Based on a true story and a real person's life, Burial Rites attempts to give a more ambiguous portrayal of Agnes Magnusdottir, an Icelandic woman convicted for her role in two murders committed in 1828. Author Hannah Kent has carefully and painstakingly researched this woman's life, the cultural and historical landscapes of nineteenth-century Iceland, and all available documents recounting the incident that occurred on a remote farm in northern Iceland. Kent noticed while researching that many records portrayed Agnes as a "witchy woman," a flawed stereotype historically attached to the female archetype that strays from behaviors, ideas, and images that have been deemed socially and culturally acceptable; when we think of violent crimes and serial killers, for example, we usually expect these people to be men. When it's a woman, she gets cast as a "witch" – inherently evil and incapable of human empathy. As Jeanette Winterson, author of The Daylight Gate and numerous other dark fantasy novels, notes, “The woman as witch happens historically when the idea of the Goddess, with her power and sexuality, is too threatening to be allowed in the social order. The witch is both fearful and fascinating, as women are. But if she gets tricky, you can always burn her.” I might add that this female version of power, and the divine, only becomes a threat in patriarchal societies, in which men traditionally occupy roles of leadership, political power, and dominance in relationships. Agnes especially wears this black hat in the comparatively less progressive nineteenth century, when gender roles were much more entrenched, as is evident in the other characters' initial reaction to the idea of a female killer: they at first refuse to even call her by her name and instead refer to her as "the murderess." It’s as if her crime, certainly not new to human experience, is so taboo for a woman that she doesn’t even deserve a human identity with a personal name. That is precisely the stigma that this book seeks to subvert, and in my experience of reading it, the author far exceeded her goal. This is one of the most beautiful and gut-wrenching explorations of the human condition I’ve ever read. I was crying by the end.
By the end, Agnes has transformed from an impersonal “murderess” to Agnes, a 33-year-old woman with a difficult past and traumatic childhood. By the end, we have listened along with the family charged with the responsibility of holding her in custody until her execution date to the story of an abused woman whose lover and employer exploited affections and work roles for his selfish interests. We have come to understand that yes, while this woman did plunge a knife into a dying man’s stomach, it was motivated by love and empathy, like putting a suffering animal out of its misery, and not a premeditated crime of passion as her prosecutors have misconstrued the events. As Agnes laments to Toti, her chosen spiritual counselor, “To know what a person has done, and to know who a person is, are very different things….It’s not fair. People claim to know you through the things you’ve done, and not by sitting down and listening to you speak for yourself….No matter if your innermost self whispers, ‘I am not as you say!’—how other people think of you determines who you are” (Kent 103-04). And so the reader agonizes with Agnes and the people who have come to know her as the human being, at the injustice of ambiguous circumstances in which one human tried to show mercy to another and is now denied mercy in facing the ultimate punishment: her own life for that which she took.Above all, this book asks the reader to see a human being as an individual with a unique set of circumstances that made her into the person you see in the present moment, regardless of actions that tempt our human minds to judge, label, and group into mass categories of faceless offenders. It's the old adage, you can't know a person until you've walked a mile in her shoes. Burial Rites is a darkly poetic walk through the last six months of a condemned woman's life told in alternating points of view to restore balance to an unfairly skewed history (or, in this case, herstory).