The book reviews of UK children's author, Brian Keaney
Based on the true story of a Agnes Magnusdottir, a woman who was found guilty of the murder of two men in Iceland in 1828, Burial Rites explores the circumstances of that crime through her imagined words and thoughts, and through the reactions of those members of the community responsible for her custody between her conviction and execution.
An atmospheric piece of writing that becomes intensely claustrophobic as the day of the execution draws nearer, Burial Rites has been praised for its authenticity. However, I wasn't always convinced by this. Parts of it certainly feel authentic but the central character sometimes seems too modern to me, such as when she's recalling her sexual experience with the murdered man:
'It was only later that I suffocated under the weight of his arguments, and his darker thoughts articulated. It was only later that our tongues produced landslides, that we became caught in the cracks between what we said and what we meant, until we could not find each other, did not trust the words in our own mouths. That night we went to the cowshed. I filled the hollow of his hands with my mouth, my breasts; I met his body against my own. His hands bunched the cloth of my skirt and lifted it up, and I felt the cool air address my skin. I was worried we would be discovered; worried they would call me a whore. Then there was the first touch of skin on skin, and that was the gunshot, the freefall.'
The word 'freefall' wasn't in use until about 1919 when it was coined by aircraft pilots. So what is a woman who has never ventured beyond a tiny part of rural Iceland at the beginning of the nineteenth century doing talking like this?
The book became very circular as it went on, exploring the same ground over and over again. Obviously, that's part of its purpose - to uncover the layers of memory and fiction that surround the murder. But, it's all just backstory, however cleverly it's unloaded. Ultimately, I felt the story lacked any real dynamic other than the central character's impending death and I struggled a little to reach the end.