Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Hannah Kent – Burial Rites Jan 29, 2018

First edition of the novel

We know from the beginning of the novel that Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the heroine of the story is going to be executed. But since it is historical fiction we expect to be treated to interior feelings and scenes that go unrecorded in the annals of drab history. We aren't disappointed.

Shoba & Kavita

The novel is slow to get under way. The reader is presented with tiresome dialogue imagined by the author to be the speech characteristic of figures of authority in those times in that isolated region. It almost sounds like a remote dialect translated into stilted English. We wonder at the earnestness with which district officers sought to bring about a spiritual reformation to convicted murderers. Lutheran ministers seemed available in plenty and up for the challenge too.

Thommo reading

It is through the efforts of one such, Reverend Thorvardur Jónsson, called Tóti for short, we learn the woman’s side of the story. At first Tóti is focused on gospel lectures and one-way spiritual talk. But later in the face of defeat, the spirit leads him to stop sermonising and open up to let Agnes speak. Thus, we obtain the first-person narrative of the condemned woman; it is wide in scope and unsparing in detail about her poverty after abandonment by her mother. Then she finds a step-mother who realised Agnes was blessed with a wonderful mind and went on to make her fully literate, even well-read.


In the literature of independent women characters we often read their stories and regret they could not have been even more independent than they were — of the wayward affections of men. What was there in Natan Ketilsson to hold Agnes Magnúsdóttir in thrall? He never gave her very much at all apart from copulation, and even mistreated her. Did his money and his economic station hold out the hope she could forever escape poverty if only she could make him take her as his wife? But he never intended to. He was the randomly begetting kind, not the staidly marrying kind.


The readers were present in strength and their evident pleasure at the end of the reading is manifest in this photograph.

Thommo, Sunil, Saras, Priya, Zakia, Shoba, Pamela, Hemjit seated with Sugandhi to his right

Full Account and Record of the Reading on Jan 29, 2018
Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

The author 

Present: Sunil, Thommo, Hemjit, Saras, Pamela, Shoba, Kavita, Preeti, Priya, Zakia
Virtually Present: Joe and Kumkum (readings played from voice files)
Absent: Ankush (away to Delhi for work)

The first reading session of 2018 was a full house with 10 members attending, and two, Joe and Kumkum, participating from Arlington, MA, with their recorded voice files transmitted through Dropbox, and played at the session. The twelve readings spanned nearly two hours; the session was lively and reaffirmed the dedication and interest of the readers.


Shoba, who had selected the novel, opened the session with a brief explanation of the patronymic system of naming followed by Icelanders to this day. Thus, Agnes Magnúsdóttir simply means Agnes, daughter of Magnus. Thommo said that this system was followed in all Scandinavian countries. So Johansson is the son of Johan. But is the son of Johansson named Johanssonsson? No, it is derived from the Christian name given to the father.

Shoba & Pamela

Thommo who has travelled by car in countless countries of the world said Iceland was not peopled until 840 AD (AD is now written in more neutral fashion as CE or Common Era). When Thommo landed in Reykjavik in 2015 , it was the desolation of the place that struck him on arrival. The landscape was stark, bleak and grim. The starkness nevertheless has a beauty, ancient and modern, captured here below in some pictures taken by Alex Holmes, Joe's son-in-law, during a visit to Iceland in the summer of 2017.

Skogafoss Waterfall in Skógar (Southern Ring Road, South Region) Iceland

Ice floes


Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Centre, designed by Henning Larsen Architects and Batteríið; this glass building in Reykjavik, the capital, is an abstract photographers dream

Black Beach (the sand is black) and the skyscraper-like rock formations in Southern Iceland

Cod fish hanging to dry

Shop sign in Iceland, where days are also short
In Latin that would be ‘Vita brevis, primum dulcibus manducare’

All that’s left of the eerie wreckage of a crashed U.S. Navy Douglas DC-3 aircraft (‘Dakota’) abandoned on Sólheimasandur beach in southern Iceland after it crashed on Nov 24, 1973

Gullfoss Waterfall [Haukadalur, South Region] in Iceland

Kirkjufell mountain in Iceland, 463 m high on the north coast of Iceland's Snæfellsnes peninsula, near the town of Grundarfjörður

One more:
Hallgrimskirkja, church in the capital, Reykjavik
Designed by Guðjón Samúelsson in 1937, construction began in 1945, ended in 1986.
The statue is of Leifur Eiríksson (c. 970 – c. 1020), the first European to discover America

Shoba said that the novel is based on the true-life story of a servant girl who was charged with the murder of her employer and executed publicly. It was the last execution ever held in Iceland.

Saras felt that the writer had taken artistic license and many parts of the novel were pure imagination, for example Agnes’ love for Natan Ketilsson. But what about the historical documents of the accusatory poem written by the poet Skald Rósa (see below) and the recorded response of Agnes?

Thommo said that Iceland was ruled by Denmark at the time and that there were no prisons in Iceland; prisoners were sent to Denmark to be jailed.  Iceland formally became  independent of Denmark, and a Republic in 1944.

In Thommo's opinion the writer was very lucky that her unpublished doctoral thesis got her a phenomenal sum of $1m as advance. Dan Brown only received $400K for the global bestseller, The Da Vinci Code

The Australian author, Hannah Kent, went on an exchange program of study to Iceland. There she discovered and researched the history of the murder and execution which form the basis of the imagined setting for her successful first novel, Burial Rites. You can listen to a podcast interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation here, which lays out what led her to write this novel.

A good review of the novel is in the NY Times.

Shoba read the passage on the celestial beauty of the Northern Lights to which Thommo responded by saying that he expected the writer to describe that in more graphic prose. People go to Iceland and the far north of other Nordic countries to see the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis, as it is called, is an incredible light show caused by collisions between electrically charged particles emitted by the sun that enter the earth's atmosphere and collide with gases such as oxygen and nitrogen.)

Thommo said that one travel writer went to Iceland three times in the hope of seeing this phenomenon, a natural display of lights, like fireworks, but unfortunately never caught sight of it. 
Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights

Kavita read the exchange between Lauga and Steina about Agnes. She said that Lauga was jealous of Agnes. This was followed by a discussion on the society of that time being male-dominated. 

Thommo said that before World War II European society was male-dominated and women had very few rights. In the early Victorian period women could not hold bank accounts in their names. However, Joe says, that to speak of male-domination in the past tense, even in Europe, is to ignore the vast suppression of the best women in the professions: take the case of BBC when their China editor, Carrie Gracie, accused her employer of a ‘secretive and illegal pay culture’ and resigned in protest over gender pay gap. Men who were serving in equivalent positions were being paid twice as much as her.

BBC's China editor Carrie Gracie, fluent in Mandarin

Saras found it incongruous that the servant girl, Agnes, read books and that women as portrayed in the novel were not so illiterate as she believed they might have been. Joe points out what is important to appreciate about the unique case of Iceland:

“One of the many quirks of this country is it's  surprisingly high literacy rate. Literacy in Iceland is universal, and has been since the early 18th century. They are the first country in Europe to have rights to such a claim. In this tiny little nation, more books are published and read per person than anywhere else in the world. A land mainly of scattered rural farming communities that endures through extreme weather and geological uncertainties, it is hardly the place that one would expect to find such depth of expressiveness. This amazing statistic can be directly attributed to Icelanders’ strong tradition of storytelling. Generations of book lovers, champions of education for all, the people of this island nation come from a long line of scribes and poets. Filling their world with age old sagas, accounts of heroes and Vikings, and tales of monsters and gods. These stories are the birthright of all Icelanders. And even today, Icelanders greatly value and take great pride in their mastery of literature, associating it directly with their national identity.  You can truly say it is in their blood.”

In a reference sent earlier to the readers there is an illustration of an extended family gathering to read in the twilight hours:

This is the Icelandic Kvöldvaka: the Cultural Phenomenon in the Twilight Hours. To quote from the reference, “Literally translated, the word kvöldvaka means ‘evening wake’ – not in the funeral sense, but in the staying awake sense. It was essentially a time in the evenings during the long, dark winters, when all the members of a household sat together in the communal living quarters of their turf farmhouses, a single room known as the baðstofa. In this room they lived, slept, worked, and effectively lived out their entire lives. During those winter evenings when it was impossible to labour outside, they worked the wool, sewed garments, made tools, or preserved food. The kvöldvaka was their way of entertaining themselves and each other while they worked, by telling stories, reciting poetry, playing games and so on, as well as reading from the scriptures at the end of the evening.”

Agnes in the novel after being abandoned by her birth-mother through sheer pauperdom,  was taught to read by her foster mother. Thommo said that it certainly was not a Catholic celibate priesthood as Reverend Toti’s father, was also a priest. The Evangelical Lutheran Church has been dominant since the mid sixteenth century when Denmark adopted the Lutheran reformation.


Sunil said that the oral tradition of passing down knowledge was there and it took the form of epic poetry, but Scandinavian countries had a tradition of storytelling or sagas. The tradition in Iceland of the kvöldvaka (see above) contributed to the taste for sagas and stories of heroic deeds. Like Saras, Sunil wondered if people in the 1800s, the period of this story, would know to read but the uniqueness of Iceland in this regard has been noted above. 

Thommo said that the English word ‘geyser’ comes from the hot spring named Geysir in southwestern Iceland. The Icelandic verb geysa, means to gush. There are several common words in English traceable to Icelandic root, such as ransack, window, slaughter, etc. Even more interesting are Icelandic words for which there is no English equivalent, such as kviðmágur, meaning those who have slept with the same person. A word necessitated, no doubt, by the old-time custom of the baðstofa. 

Infant mortality in Iceland is also the lowest in Europe. In 2015 the infant mortality rate in Iceland was 1.9 per 1,000 live births. The average in the European Union is 4.0, while the US has an infant mortality rate of almost 6.

Thommo read the Prologue to the book and commented on the beauty of the prose. He gave an example from the book:
          Autumn fell upon the valley like a gasp
and praised its originality. 

He went on to read the passage where Agnes is imprisoned and her legs are tied; “with each passing day I become more like an animal to them.” The judgment pronounced on her to be executed was harsher than it should have been. A short discussion on the death penalty followed.

Sunil said that Agnes was executed because she was a servant from a lower class of society. Zakia felt that she was executed in sheer spite, because she was intelligent and defiant. A woman from the servant class was not expected to possess such qualities, or if she did, then not to display them.

Sunil’s notion was that Agnes was executed to serve as an example for the rest of the people from that class, to not dare to fall in love with persons of a higher status. But was Ketilsson really of a higher class? He had more money, perhaps, being paid as a healer, but was he not of the same stock as the farmers? But not a servant like Agnes.

Zakia enjoyed the writing and said it was sharp in details. The prose was intricate but the story was very dark. Thommo said that such a story could never happen in a tropical country like ours as nobody would be sleeping side by side in close proximity as happened in a baðstofa and hence sexual congress by casual physical contact was unlikely to take place! But let’s remember The God of Small Things, where Ammu and Velutha find a way to cross caste and class barriers without the medium of a baðstofa. As Sunil pointed out in Burial Rites, there too the fate that befalls Velutha, the servant, is on account of his audacity in having sex with a woman of higher status.

Saras read the passage where Agnes is alone by herself in Kornsá, not tied or bound as a prisoner. For the first time she feels free and thoughts of escape come to her mind. Every prisoner thinks of escape but in her case, Saras asked, “where to?” All around the landscape was desolate and a person could not survive. She remarked that the bleak landscape of Iceland is almost a character in the book, one which directs the actions of the principal players in the story.

Thoughts diverged to the plight of the Indian politician Sasikala, former right-hand person of the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, Jayalalitha; she is now in prison. But corrupt prison officials have been accused of affording her luxuries to which she was not entitled, because bribes were paid.

Zakia read parts from the novel which highlight the plight of women in the story, and their sad, hard lives. Thommo said that the current PM of Iceland, Katrín Jakobsdóttir, is a woman:

Katrín Jakobsdóttir

and the incumbent Lutheran bishop of Iceland too is a woman, Agnes M. Sigurðardóttir, ironically, with the same first name as our heroine. 

Agnes M. Sigurðardóttir, incumbent Lutheran bishop of Iceland

The condition of women in Iceland has changed completely for the better, and it must rank as one of the most fair and equal countries in the world for women to live and work. Could one look forward to the day when the suffixes -son and -dottir in Iceland will stand after the mother’s Christian name?

Sunil read a poem by the poet Skald Rósa who was one of Ketilsson's lovers. She addressed Agnes in these furious words in the weeks following the murder: 
   Don’t be surprised by the sorrow in my eyes
   Nor at the bitter pangs of pain that I feel:
   For you have stolen with your scheming he who gave my life meaning,
   And thrown your life to the Devil to deal.

Agnes, not to be outdone, replied:
   This is my only wish to you,
   bound in anger and grief:
   Do not scratch my bleeding wounds,
   I’m full of disbelief.
   My soul is filled with sorrow!
   I seek grace from the Lord.
   Remember, Jesus bought us both   and for the same accord.

Sunil went on to read the passage when Agnes was abandoned by her mother. This led to an earnest discussion of current cases in India of parents killing their children — the infamous 2008 Aarushi murder case (it was a double murder of the servant Hemraj and the girl Aarushi) in which the parents, Nupur and Rajesh Talwar, were finally cleared of their daughter's murder by the Allahabad High Court in 2017. The alleged murder of Sheena Bora by her mother, Indrani Mukherjee, was also mentioned.

Hemjit felt that the author, Hannah Kent, revels in describing in minute detail the filth and dirt of individual bodies, describing lice-infested hair, nails festered with grime, filthy surroundings, and such. He read a passage highlighting that aspect. 

Pamela's passage was about Agnes’s thoughts on Reverend Tóti, how the priest thought about women charged with murder of men with whom they had had extra-marital relations. Agnes compares Tóti with Natan. Hemjit read the line, 
      I was worst to the one I loved the best

taken from the Laxdaela Saga quotation at the head of the book, to make his point.


Preeti excused herself as she had not read the book; instead she wanted to listen to the rest of the group. She attended out of loyalty, having missed her KRG friends for long.

Priya read the scene where Natan is distressed by the death waves he apparently had to sail through and reach the shore, in his troubling dreams, where he saw Agnes nailed to the wall. Priya said that the society then was very superstitious and believed in spirits influencing human lives. Natan who was apparently educated, and a man with knowledge of healing by herbs, proved himself to be no less superstitious. Priya read the scene where Natan strikes Agnes; what a selfish uncaring man! 

Priya also said that she checked out the link on the pronunciation of badstofa and found the image of how a baðstofa looked: 

A baðstofa, or communal room. National Museum of Iceland, Reykjavik

Everyone felt that people sleeping in the same room, at freezing temperatures, in close proximity, were bound to find warmth by getting into each other’s beds. Not much culpability could be attached to ‘spooning’ in such circumstances!

Hemjit  was celebrating his 60th birthday and simultaneously their 25th wedding anniversary. He brought vegetable cutlets and Mysore Pak: 

which the group savoured. No one could resist a second helping. Hemjit said that his wife Sugandhi, who joined the session at the end, would have made it herself, but for the fact she was preoccupied with their relatives; so he had these ordered from a restaurant. 

As much as the repast,  the reading was thoroughly enjoyed by everyone.  


Chapter 2
THEY HAVE TAKEN ME FROM the room and put me in irons again. This time they sent an officer of the court, a young man with pocked skin and a nervous smile. He’s a servant from Hvammur, I recognised his face. When his lips broke apart I could see that his teeth were rotting in his mouth. His breath was awful, but no worse than my own; I know I am rank. I am scabbed with dirt and the accumulated weeping of my body: blood, sweat, oil. I cannot think of when I last washed. My hair feels like a greased rope; I have tried to keep it plaited, but they have not allowed me ribbons, and I imagine that to the officer I looked like a monstrous creature. Perhaps that was why he smiled.
He took me from that awful room, and other men joined us as he led me through the unlit corridor. They were silent, but I felt them behind me; I felt their stares as though they were cold handgrips upon my neck. Then, after months in a room filled only with my own fetid breath and the stench from the chamber pot, I was taken through the corridors of Stóra-Borg into the muddy yard. And it was raining.
How can I say what it was like to breathe again? I felt newborn. I staggered in the light of the world and took deep gulps of fresh sea air. It was late in the day: the wet mouth of the afternoon was full on my face. My soul blossomed in that brief moment as they led me out of doors. I fell, my skirts in the mud, and I turned my face upwards as if in prayer. I could have wept from the relief of light.
A man reached down and pulled me from the ground as one wrests a thistle that takes root in a place it does not belong. It was then that I noticed the crowd that had gathered. At first I did not know why these people stood about, men and women alike, each still and staring at me in silence. Then I understood that it was not me they stared at. I understood that these people did not see me. I was two dead men. I was a burning farm. I was a knife. I was blood.
I didn’t know what to do in front of these people. Then I saw Rósa, watching from a distance, clutching the hand of her little daughter. It was a comfort to see someone I recognised, and I smiled involuntarily. But the smile was wrong. It unlocked the crowd’s fury. The servant women’s faces twisted, and the silence was broken by a sudden, brief shriek from a child: Fjandi! Devil! It burst into the air like an explosion of water from a geyser. The smile dropped from my face.
At the sound of the insult, the crowd seemed to awaken. Someone gave a brittle laugh and the child was hushed and led away by an older woman. One by one, they all left to return indoors or to continue their chores, until I was alone with the officers in the drizzle, standing in stockings stiff with dried sweat, my heart burning under my filthy skin. When I looked back, I saw that Rósa had disappeared.
Now we are riding across Iceland’s north, across this island washing in its waters, sulking in its ocean. Chasing our shadows across the mountains.
They have strapped me to the saddle like a corpse being taken to the burial ground. In their eyes I am already a dead woman, destined for the grave. My arms are tethered in front of me. As we ride this awful parade, the irons pinch my flesh until it bloodies in front of my eyes. I have come to expect harm now. Some of the watchmen at Stóra-Borg compassed my body with small violences, chronicled their hatred towards me, a mark here, bruises, blossoming like star clusters under the skin, black and yellow smoke trapped under the membrane. I suppose some of them had known Natan.

Ch 10
Natan did not pull away from my embrace, but I felt his body stiffen at my touch. I buried my face into the greasy folds of his shirt and kissed his back.
‘Don’t,’ he muttered. His face was still turned towards the sea. I tightened my hands upon his stomach and pressed myself against him.
‘Stop it, Agnes.’ He grabbed my hands, and pushed me away from him. His muscles moved as he clenched and unclenched his jaw.
A gale picked up. It knocked Natan’s hat from his head and carried it out to sea.
I asked him what was wrong. I asked him if someone had threatened him, and he laughed. His eyes were stony. His hair, no longer constrained by his hat, whipped about his head in a dark tangle.
He said that he saw signs of death all about him.
In the silence that followed, I took a deep breath. ‘Natan, you’re not going to die.’
‘Explain the death waves then.’ His voice was low, taut. ‘Explain the premonitions. The dreams that I’ve been having.’
‘Natan, you laugh about those dreams.’ I was trying to remain calm. ‘You tell everybody about them.’
‘Do you see me laughing, Agnes?’
He stepped towards me and grasped my shoulders, bringing his face so close to mine that our foreheads touched.
‘Every night,’ he hissed, ‘I dream of death. I see it everywhere. I see blood, everywhere.’
‘You’ve been skinning animals –’
Natan gripped me harder about the shoulders. ‘I see it upon the ground, in dark, sticky pools.’ He licked his lips. ‘I taste it, Agnes. I wake with the taste of blood in my mouth.’
‘You bite your tongue in your sleep –’
He gave an unfriendly smile. ‘I saw you and Daníel talking about me by the boat.’
‘Let go of me, Natan.’
He ignored me.
‘Let go of me!’ I twisted myself out of his grasp. ‘You should listen to yourself. You sound like an old woman, harping on about dreams and premonitions.’
It was cold. A great, churning cloud had moved in from the sea, snuffing all but the faintest scratchings of light from the sky. Yet even in the near darkness, I could see Natan’s eyes shine. His gaze unnerved me.
‘Agnes,’ he said. ‘I’ve been dreaming about you.’
I said nothing, suddenly longing to return to the croft and light the lamps. I was aware of the ocean, not two steps from our feet.
‘I dream that I’m in bed and I can see blood running down the walls. It drips on my head and the drops burn my skin.’
He took a step towards me.
‘I am bound to my bed, and the blood rises about me until I am covered. Then, suddenly, it’s gone. I can move, and I sit up and look about me and the room is empty.’
He pressed my hand and I felt the sharp edge of his nail dig into the flesh of my palm.
‘But then, I see you. I walk towards you. And as I draw closer I see that you’re nailed to the wall by your hair.’
As he said this, a great gust of wind blew my cap from my head, and my hair was loosed. Unbraided as it was, the long tendrils were immediately lashed about by the wind. Natan quickly reached out and grabbed a handful, using it to pull me closer.
‘Natan! You’re hurting me!’
But Natan was distracted. ‘What’s that?’ he whispered.
On the wind I could suddenly smell the heavy stench of rot, dark and putrid.
‘It’s the seaweed. Or a dead seal. Let go of my hair.’
I was sick of his temper. ‘No one is out to get you, Natan. You’re not so important as that.’
I wrenched my hair out of his grasp and turned to walk back up to the croft, but Natan grabbed me by the sleeve of my blouse, twisted me and struck me full on the face.
I gasped and immediately brought my hand to my cheek, but Natan seized my fingers and held them tightly in his own, forcing me to crouch close to him. Even against the chill of the wind I could feel the blood rush to where he had hit me.
‘Never speak to me like that again.’ Natan’s mouth pressed against my ear. His voice was low and hard. ‘I shouldn’t have asked you here.’
He held me for a moment longer, twisting my fingers until I cried out from the pain, and then he released his grip and shoved me away from him.
I stumbled along the outcrop and up the hill to the croft in the low light, tripping over my skirts, the wind aching in my ears. I was crying, yet even over the sound of the wind, and my own ragged breathing, I heard Natan shout to me from where he stood on the knoll by the sea.
‘Remember your place, Agnes!’

Ch 4
Agnes shook her head. ‘To know what a person has done, and to know who a person is, are very different things.’
Tóti persisted. ‘But, Agnes, actions speak louder than words.’
‘Actions lie,’ Agnes retorted quickly. ‘Sometimes people never stood a chance in the beginning, or they might have made a mistake. When people start saying things like she must be a bad mother because of that mistake . . .’
When Tóti said nothing in response she went on.
‘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 how much you try to live a godly life, if you make a mistake in this valley, it’s never forgotten. No matter if you tried to do what was best. No matter if your innermost self whispers, “I am not as you say!” – how other people think of you determines who you are.’
Agnes stopped to take a breath. She had begun to raise her voice, and Tóti wondered what had provoked this sudden gush of words.
‘That’s what happened to my mother, Reverend,’ Agnes continued. ‘Who was she really? Probably not as people say she was, but she made mistakes and others made up their minds about her. People around here don’t let you forget your misdeeds. They think them the only things worth writing down.’
Tóti thought for a moment. ‘What was your mother’s mistake?’
‘I’ve been told she made many, Reverend. But at least one of those mistakes was me. She was unlucky.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘She did what any number of women do harmlessly in secret,’ Agnes said bitterly. ‘But she was one of the unfortunate few whose secrets are made visible to everyone.’
Tóti could feel the hot creep of a blush appear on his face. He looked down at his hands and tried to clear his throat.
Agnes looked at him. ‘I’ve offended you again,’ she said.
Tóti shook his head. ‘I’m glad that you tell me of your past.’
‘My past has offended your sensibilities.’
Tóti shifted his seat on the rock. ‘What about your father?’ he tried.
Agnes laughed. ‘Which of them?’ She stopped knitting to study him. ‘What did your book say about my father?’
‘That his name was Magnús Magnússon and that he was living at Stóridalur at the time of your birth.’
Agnes continued to knit, but Tóti noticed that she was clenching her jaw. ‘If you spoke to certain people about these parts you might get a different story.’
‘How is that?’
Agnes looked out across the river to the farms on the opposite side of the valley, silently counting the stitches on her needle with her finger. ‘I suppose it doesn’t matter if I’m honest with you or not,’ she said coldly. ‘I could say anything to you.’
‘Indeed, I hope you will confide in me,’ Tóti said, misunderstanding. He leaned closer in anticipation of what she would say.
‘Your book at Undirfell ought to have said Jón Bjarnason, the farmer at Brekkukot. I’ve been told that he is my real father, and Magnús Magnússon is a hapless servant who didn’t know better.’
Tóti was perplexed. ‘Why would your mother name you Magnús’s daughter if that were not the truth?’
Agnes turned to him, half-smiling. ‘Have you no idea of how the world works, Reverend?’ she asked. ‘Jón of Brekkukot is a married man with enough legitimate children of his own. Oh, and plenty like me, you can be sure. But it seems a lesser crime to create a child with an unmarried man than one already bound in flesh and soul to another woman. So I suppose my mother picked a different sod to have the honour of fathering me.’
Tóti considered this for a moment. ‘And you believe this because others told you so?’
‘If I believed everything everyone had ever told me about my family I’d be a sight more miserable than I am now, Reverend. But it doesn’t take an education in Copenhagen or down south to work out which bairns belong to which pabbis in these parts. Hard to keep a secret to yourself here.’
‘Have you ever asked him?’
‘Jón Bjarnason? And what would be the good of that?’
‘To get the truth out of him, I suppose,’ Tóti suggested. He was feeling disappointed with the conversation.
‘No such thing as truth,’ Agnes said, standing up.
Tóti stood up also and began rubbing the seat of his pants. ‘There is truth in God,’ he said, earnestly, recognising an opportunity to do his spiritual duty. ‘John, chapter eight, verse thirty-two: “And ye . . . ”’
‘Shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free. Yes, I know. I know,’ Agnes said. She bundled her knitting things together and began to walk back down to the farm. ‘Not in my case, Reverend Thorvardur,’ she called to him. ‘I’ve told the truth and you can see for yourself how it has served me.’
IT WON’T BE ANY GOOD for the Reverend to read ministerial books, or any book for that matter – what will he learn of me there? Only the things other men think important about me.
When the Reverend saw my name and birth in the church book, did he see only the writing and understand only the date? Or did he see the fog of that day, and hear the ravens cawing at the smell of blood? Did he imagine it as I have imagined it? My mother, weeping, holding me against the clammy warmth of her skin. Avoiding the looks of the Flaga women she worked for, knowing already that she’d have to leave and try to find work elsewhere. Knowing no farmer would hire a servant woman with a newborn.
If he wants to learn of my family he’ll have a hard time of it. Two fathers and a mother who seem as blurry to me as strangers departing through a snowstorm. I have few clear memories of her. One is the day she left me. Another is when I was young, watching her in the lamplight of a winter night. It’s a silent memory, and one, like the others, I can’t quite trust. Memories shift like loose snow in a wind, or are a chorale of ghosts all talking over one another. There is only ever a sense that what is real to me is not real to others, and to share a memory with someone is to risk sullying my belief in what has truly happened. Is the Reverend the person of my memory, or is he another altogether? Did I do that, or was it another? Magnús or Jón? It’s the glaze of ice over the water, too fragile to trust.
Did my mother look down at her baby daughter and think: ‘One day I will leave you’? Did she look at my scrunched face, hoping I would die, or did she silently urge me to stick to life like a burr? Perhaps she looked out to the valley, into the mist and stillness, and wondered what she could give me. A lie for a father. A head of dark hair. A hayrack to sleep in. A kiss. A stone, so that I might learn to understand the birds and never be lonely.

Ch 12
I looked at the hammer he held in his hands, and there was something stuck to it – it was hair. I was sick then, on the floor.
Fridrik helped me to my feet. He was still gripping the hammer, holding it out at the ready. ‘Have you hurt Natan?’ I asked, and Fridrik told me to bring the lamp closer to the bed. Natan was bleeding also. One side of his face looked strange, as though his cheekbone had been flattened, and what I thought was Pétur’s blood was pooling in the cavity of his neck.
A scream erupted from my chest and strength left me. I dropped the lamp again, and fell to the floor in the darkness that erupted over us.
Fridrik must have fetched the candle from the corridor. I saw his face shine as he entered the room. Then, we both heard a voice.
‘What was that?’ Fridrik quickly walked over to my side and pulled me to my feet. We were trembling. The sound came again. A groan.
‘Natan?’ I grabbed the candle from Fridrik and lurched towards the bed, holding it close to Natan’s face. I saw his eyelids twitch in the bright flare, and he tried to stir on the bed.
‘What did you do to him?’ Fridrik was as white as a corpse, his pupils so dilated they looked black.
‘The hammer . . .’ he mumbled.
Natan groaned again, and this time Fridrik bent close, listening.
‘He said “Worm”.’
‘Worm Beck?’
‘Maybe he’s dreaming.’
We stood still, watching Natan for more signs of life. The silence was deadening. Then Natan slowly opened one of his eyes, and looked right at me.
‘Agnes?’ he murmured.
‘I’m here,’ I said. A rush of relief went through me. ‘Natan, I’m here.’
His eye moved from me to Fridrik. Then, he swivelled his head and saw Pétur’s staved-in skull. I saw that he knew what had happened.
‘No,’ he croaked. ‘No, no no no.’
Fridrik stepped backwards from me. I wasn’t going to let him leave.
‘Look what you’ve done!’ I whispered. ‘Look at your work.’
‘What did you do to him?’ Fridrik was as white as a corpse, his pupils so dilated they looked black.
‘The hammer . . .’ he mumbled.
Natan groaned again, and this time Fridrik bent close, listening.
‘He said “Worm”.’
‘Worm Beck?’
‘Maybe he’s dreaming.’
We stood still, watching Natan for more signs of life. The silence was deadening. Then Natan slowly opened one of his eyes, and looked right at me.
‘Agnes?’ he murmured.
‘I’m here,’ I said. A rush of relief went through me. ‘Natan, I’m here.’
His eye moved from me to Fridrik. Then, he swivelled his head and saw Pétur’s staved-in skull. I saw that he knew what had happened.
‘No,’ he croaked. ‘No, no no no.’
Fridrik stepped backwards from me. I wasn’t going to let him leave.
‘Look what you’ve done!’ I whispered. ‘Look at your work.’
‘I didn’t mean to! Natan, I swear.’ Fridrik began to pant, staring at the bloody hammer by our feet.
Natan cried out again. He was trying to get up from his bed, but screamed when he put weight on his arm. Fridrik had crushed it.
‘You wanted him dead!’ I cried, facing Fridrik. ‘What are you going to do now?’
There was a thump and we both looked down and saw Natan on the ground. He had dragged himself out of the bed with his good arm, but could go no further.
‘Help me lift him,’ I said to Fridrik, setting the candle on the floor, but the boy wouldn’t touch him. I bent down and tried to drag Natan upright, so that he could rest his head against the beam, but he was too heavy, and when I saw the way his skull had swollen, the blood that had poured down his back, I lost all my strength: my limbs turned to water. I cradled his head in my lap and I saw that he would not survive the night.
‘Fridrik,’ Natan was repeating over and over. ‘Fridrik, I will pay you, I will pay you.’
‘He wants to talk to you, Fridrik,’ I said, but Fridrik had turned his face away, and would not look at us. ‘Turn around,’ I screamed. ‘The least you could do is speak to the man you have killed!’
Natan stopped murmuring. I felt his body stiffen, and he looked up at me, his head lolling slightly. ‘Agnes . . .’
‘Yes, it’s me, Agnes. I’m here, Natan. I’m here.’
His mouth gaped open. I thought he was trying to say something, but all that came out was a gargling. I looked up at Fridrik and he was standing there, his face white-pale and his hair in his eyes and red at one side where the blood had burst and hit him. His eyes were wide and scared.
‘Why is he doing that?’ he asked. Natan was choking, blood spilling out onto his chin, onto my skirt.
‘Why is he doing that?!’ Fridrik screamed. ‘Make him stop!’
I reached over and picked the knife up from the floor. ‘Do it then, finish what you’ve begun!’
Fridrik shook his head. His face was ashen and he stared at me in horror.
‘Do it!’ I said. ‘Will you leave him to slowly die?’
Fridrik kept shaking his head. He flinched as a little stream of blood erupted anew from Natan’s head wound. ‘No,’ he said. ‘I can’t. I can’t.’
Natan looked up at me: his teeth were red from blood. His lips moved silently, and I understood what he was trying to say.
The knife went in easily. It pierced Natan’s shirt with neat rips, sounding like an ill-practised kiss – I couldn’t have stopped if I’d wanted to. My fist jerked, until I felt sudden, close warmth over my wrist and realised that his blood covered my hand. The warmth of it was noticeable against the chill of the night. I released the handle, and pushed Natan away from me, looking down at the knife. It stuck out from his belly, and his shirt was dark and wetly puckered around the blade. For a moment we stared at each other. The light from the candle caught the edge of his forehead, his eyelashes, and I was suddenly overwhelmed with gratitude – he regarded me clearly. It seemed like forgiveness.

Ch 7
‘You believe Agnes planned to kill Natan because she was spurned.’
‘Reverend. We have a seventeen-year-old common thief armed with a hammer, a sixteen-year-old maid afraid for her life, and a spinster woman whose unrequited affections erupted into bitter hatred. One of them plunged a knife into Natan Ketilsson.’
Tóti’s head spun. He focused on the white feather resting on the edge of the desk before him.
‘I cannot believe it,’ he said, finally.
Blöndal sighed. ‘You will not find proof of innocence in Agnes’s stories of her life, Reverend. She is a woman loose with her emotions, and looser with her morals. Like many older servant women she is practised in deception, and I do not doubt that she has manufactured a life story in such a way so as to prick your sympathy. I would not believe a word she says. She lied to my face in this very room.’
‘She seems sincere,’ Tóti said.
‘I can tell you that she is not. You must apply the Lord’s word to her as a whip to a hard-mouthed horse. You will not get anywhere otherwise.’
Tóti swallowed. He thought of Agnes, her thin pale body in the shadowy corners of Kornsá, describing the death of her foster-mother.
‘I will invest all my energies into her redemption, District Commissioner.’
‘Allow me to redirect you, Reverend. Let me tell you of the work Reverend Jóhann Tómasson has done upon Fridrik.’
‘The priest from Tjörn.’
‘Yes. I first met Fridrik Sigurdsson in person on the day I went to arrest him. This was in March of last year, shortly after I heard news of the fire at Illugastadir and saw for myself the remains of Natan and Pétur.
‘I rode to his family’s home, Katadalur, with a few of my men, and we went to the back of the cottage so as to surprise him. When I knocked on the farm door, Fridrik himself opened the hatch and I immediately set my men upon him. They put him in irons. That young man was furious, exhibiting behaviour and language of the most foul and degenerate variety. He struggled with my men, and when I warned him not to attempt escape, he shouted, plain enough for all to hear, that he regretted not having brought his gun outside with him, for it would become me to have a bullet through my forehead.
‘I had my men bring Fridrik here, to Hvammur, and I proceeded to question him, as I had done previously with Agnes and Sigrídur, who told me of his involvement. He was stubborn, and remained silent. It was not until I arranged for Reverend Jóhann Tómasson to speak with him that he confessed to having, with the aid of the two women, murdered the men. Fridrik was not repentant or remorseful as a man accused of killing in a passionate state might be. He repeatedly uttered his conviction that what he had done to Natan was necessary and just. Reverend Jóhann suggested to me that his criminal behaviour was a direct consequence of his having been badly brought up, and indeed, after seeing Fridrik’s mother’s hysterics when we arrested her son, I have come to share his opinion. What other factor could incite a mere boy of seventeen winters to thrash a man to death with a hammer?
‘Fridrik Sigurdsson was a boy raised in a household careless with morality and Christian teaching, Reverend. Slothfulness, greed, and rude, callow inclinations bred in him a weak spirit, and a longing for worldy gain. After recording his confession, I was of the unwavering opinion that his was an intransigent character. His appearance excited in me strong suspicions of that order – he is freckle-faced and – I beg your pardon, Reverend – red-headed, a sign of a treacherous nature. When I set him in custody with Birni Olsen at Thingeyrar I had little hope for his reformation. However, Reverend Jóhann and Olsen fortunately possessed more hope for the boy than I entertained, and set to work upon his soul with the religious fervour that makes both men so necessary to this community. Reverend Jóhann confided to me that, through the combination of prayer, daily religious reprehension, and the good, moral example set by Olsen and his family, Fridrik has come to repent of his crime and see the error of his ways. He talks openly and honestly of his misdeeds and acknowledges that his impending execution is right given the horrific nature of the crime committed by his hands. He recognises it as “God’s justice”. Now, what do you say to this?’
Tóti swallowed. ‘I commend both Reverend Jóhann and Herr Birni Olsen for their achievement.’
‘As do I,’ Blöndal said. ‘Does Agnes Magnúsdóttir repent of her crime in a similar manner?’
Tóti hesitated. ‘She does not speak of it.’
‘And that is because she is reticent, secretive and guilty.’
Tóti was silent for a moment. He wanted nothing more than to run from the room and join the rest of the household of Hvammur, whose chatter slipped under the door of Blöndal’s office.

Ch 3
WHEN I COME INTO THE badstofa I see that the officer who was sleeping is gone. He must have joined his friends; I can hear men talking in a mixture of Danish and Icelandic outside the window. They must not have seen the farm mistress push me back inside. The two sleeping daughters have gone also. I’m alone.
I am alone.
There is no watchful eye, no guard at the door, no rope, no fetters, no locks, and I am all by myself, unbound. I am paralysed by the thought of it. Surely someone has an eye to a keyhole? Surely someone has pressed his body to a crack in the wall, is waiting to see what I will do, waiting to storm the room with a finger pointing like a knife at my throat.
But there is no one. Not a soul.
I stand in the centre of the room, and let my eyes adjust to the gloom. Yes, I am quite alone, and a tremble of exhilaration passes along my skin, like the tremor on the surface of a pot of water about to boil. In this minute I can do anything: I can examine the cottage, or lie down, or talk aloud, or sing. I can dance, or swear, or laugh and no one will know.
I could escape.
A bubble of fear passes up my spine. It’s the feeling of standing on ice and suddenly hearing it crack under your weight – both thrilling and terrifying together. At Stóra-Borg I dreamt of escape. Of finding the key to my fetters and fleeing – I never thought of where I might go. There was never a chance. Yet here, now, I could slip out of the yard and run down the far end of the valley, away from the farms, to wait and escape under night into the highlands, where the sky will cover me with her rough, grey hand. I could flee to the heath. Show them that they cannot keep me locked up, that I am a thief of time and will steal the hours denied to me!
Specks of dust drift in the sunlight coming through the dried membrane fastened to the window. As I watch them, the thrill of escape is sucked away, like water down a geyser. I would only be trading one death sentence for another. Up in the highlands blizzards howl like the widows of fishermen and the wind blisters the skin off your face. Winter comes like a punch in the dark. The uninhabited places are as cruel as any executioner.
My knees are weak as I stumble to my bed. With my eyes closed, the silence of the room presses upon me like a hand.

Ch 6
But on this night, Kjartan and I stepped out into the chill air, our feet crunching the snow upon the ground, and we soon understood why Björn had summoned us. The whole sky was overrun with colour as I’d never seen it before. Great curtains of light moved as if blown by a wind, billowing above us. Björn was right – it looked as though the night sky was slowly burning. There were smears of violet that swelled against the darkness of the night and the stars that were littered across it. The lights ebbed, like waves, then were suddenly interrupted by new streaks of violent green that plunged through the sky as if falling from a great height.
‘Look, Agnes,’ my foster-father said, and he turned me by the shoulders so that I might see how the brilliance of the northern lights threw the mountain ridge into sharp relief. Despite the lateness of the hour I could see the familiar, crooked horizon.
‘See if you can’t touch them,’ Björn said then, and I dropped my shawl on the snow so that I could raise my arms to the sky.

‘You know what this means,’ Björn said. ‘This means there will be a storm. The northern lights always herald bad weather.’