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Novel Shines New Light on Real Life 19th Century Murderer

Nicholas Purcell photo

Australian writer Hannah Kent traveled about as far away from home as she could as a teenage exchange student: Iceland.

It was there that she learned the story of the last person executed in the country's history. Agnes Magnúsdóttir was beheaded in 1830 for her part in the grisly murder of two men in the country's far north.  But before she was put to death, she was sent to live our her remaining days with a family on a remote farm.  While Kent didn't have all the details on the crime, she says she immediately felt she understood something about Magnúsdóttir.

"At the time I heard the story - just the very few basic facts of Agnes's life - there was something in her own story of being conspicuous, yet socially isolated," Kent says.  "And being alienated and probably very lonely in exactly the same place that I was, then."

Kent eventually decided to make Magnúsdóttir's story the focus of her Ph. D. work, which led to another trip to Iceland, and the writing of her novel, Burial Rites.  

Magnúsdóttir's backstory, and her relationships with the people with whom she is sent to live are central to the story and form its tension, even as readers are aware that she is condemned to die.

Kent says she aimed to portray a nuanced depiction of Magnúsdóttir, who many Icelanders know only as a notorious murderer.  One of her victims, Natan Ketilsson, was a well-known local man with whom she had been romantically linked.

"I was always really struck quite early on at the way in which they would talk about this woman - Agnes - almost as though she were a kind of Nordic Lady MacBeth, this inherently wicked woman who had plotted out this particularly vicious crime." - Hannah Kent

But while she hoped to revise Magnúsdóttir's place in Icelandic history, Kent doesn't dispute that she was guilty.  "I always had this very strong, intuitive feeling that Agnes was involved in this crime, but I also had this strong sense that it wasn't because of an inherent monstrosity."

Kent, who lives in Adelaide and is co-founder of the Australian literary journal Kill Your Darlings, came through Milwaukee to speak at Boswell Book Company.

Web exclusive: Hannah Kent and Mitch Teich talk about the book's cover, and about the possibility that the novel may be made into a movie.