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Publication Due 29th August 2013
Haunting and heartbreaking, this is the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, condemned to die for her part in the murder of two men, one her lover. While waiting for the date of execution to be set, Agnes is put into the custody of Jón and Margrét Jónsson and, at Agnes’ request, a young priest, Reverend Tóti, is given the task of preparing Agnes spiritually for her death. At first the family are horrified to have a murderess amongst them, Margrét fearing for the safety and moral well-being of her own two daughters Lauga and Steina, while Tóti doubts his own experience and ability to help Agnes find some kind of repentance and acceptance. But as summer fades into the long, harsh winter, Agnes gradually breaks her silence and begins to reveal her story of what led to that night…
“The weight of his fingers on mine, like a bird landing on a branch. It was the drop of the match. I did not see that we were surrounded by tinder until I felt it burst into flames.”
Set in Iceland in 1829, the book is a fictionalized account of a true story. The writing is excellent and the author has clearly researched both Agnes’ story and Icelandic culture of the time thoroughly. The characterization is very strong, especially of the three main characters. We see Tóti’s struggle to overcome his own feelings, initially of repugnance, but later of inadequacy and guilt as he begins to feel attracted to Agnes. Margrét is stern and determined to protect her family, but as she comes to know Agnes better her innate fair-mindedness begins to see that things are not as black and white as she had thought. And the complex character of Agnes remains ambiguous throughout – sometimes she earns our sympathy, pity even, but the crime is always there to make us think there is another side to her. Mostly told as a third-person narrative, there are also first-person sections that let the reader see some of the thoughts and memories Agnes is holding back from the other characters.
“In those early visits it was as though we were building something sacred. We’d place words carefully together, piling them upon one another, leaving no spaces. We each created towers, two beacons, the like of which are built along roads to guide the way when the weather comes down.”
Kent paints extraordinary pictures with her words. She brings the harsh Icelandic environment vividly to life – the relentless struggle to scrape an existence out of the land, the constant presence and threat of extreme weather. And she shows us the isolated and claustrophobic way of life, where old superstitions still persist in spite of the strict enforcement of religion; and where all members of a household, master and servant, share a communal living space in farms which may be cut off from even their nearest neighbours for days or weeks at a time. She weaves these things so naturally through the story that there is never a feeling of being ‘told’ about them – rather she writes as if these things will be familiar to the reader, and gradually they become so.
“Already the mountain grass is fading to the colour of smoked meat, and the evenings smell of burning fish oil from lamps newly lit. At Illugastadir there will soon be a prickle of frost over the seaweed thrown upon the shore. The seals will be banked upon the tongues of rock, watching winter descend from the mountain.”
I loved the style of writing from the first pages, and as I got drawn more into the characters and the culture, I found this became an intensely moving book, never sentimental, never taking the easy option, never telling the reader what to think or feel. To call this a stunning debut is almost to insult it – this is a more compelling and assured book than most writers ever achieve. Highly recommended.
NB This book was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK.