At the heart of Hannah Kent’s bleak and beautiful debut novel is a famous Icelandic crime: In March 1828, three people allegedly murdered two farmers and set fire to their home. All three were caught and condemned to death.
Kent begins the story when Agnes, one of the convicted murderers, is moved to the home of District Officer Jon Jonsson to await execution. Jon lives up north in the shadow of the Vatnsdalsfjall range, with his doughty, no-nonsense wife, Margrét, and their two young daughters. Anxious about her impending death, Agnes requests the ministrations of a spiritual adviser, a young assistant reverend named Tóti, who has no idea why the condemned woman would ask for him by name.
Conditions are close in Jon’s simple farmstead, where dried seaweed fills the pillows and stretched sheep’s bladders stand in as window glass. The house is dank and chilly, and the farm work is hard, but it all seems like paradise to Agnes. Margrét gradually drops her wariness, and Agnes’s spiritual sessions with Reverend Tóti evolve from lectures to something akin to talking cures — which doesn’t sit well with District Commissioner Björn Blöndal. He warns the young reverend, “You must apply the Lord’s word to her as a whip to a hard-mouthed horse.”
Kent handles her starkly austere story with uncanny precision and an utter lack of sentiment. She alternates her focus from Agnes to Tóti to Margrét, steadily tightening the pace of her revelations about what really happened that night of the murders. As shocked by the crime as the people of this rural community might be, they’re under no illusions that either of the dead farmers was a saint.
But even in 19th-century rural Iceland, politics is politics: Blöndal is determined to make an example of Agnes. He doesn’t care about the restorative effect that the Kornsá valley is having on Agnes, who arrived at Margrét’s house bitter and hopeless. “Those who are not being dragged to their deaths,” Agnes says, “cannot understand how the heart grows hard and sharp, until it is a nest of rocks with only an empty egg in it,” but soon she comes to relish life again. As her relationship with Margrét deepens, readers increasingly dread the certainty of what’s coming. By the time this wondrously adept novel reaches its conclusion, those readers will share Margrét’s despairing realization: “Nothing is simple.”
Donoghue is managing editor of the online magazine Open Letters Monthly.
By Hannah Kent
Little, Brown. 322 pp. $26