In 1929 Fridrik Sigurdsson and two housemaids, Sigridur Gudmundsdottir and Agnes Magnudottir, are convicted of the brutal murders of two men in northern Iceland and are to be executed. At this time, Iceland is part of Denmark and authorization for the executions must be upheld by the higher courts and eventually by the King himself. In the meantime, as there are no jailhouses in the district, the three are housed in different locations in the area and assigned a religious person to help them prepare for their execution. Unhappy with the priest assigned to her, Agnes has requested that a young and inexperienced priest, “Toti” Jonsson, become her spiritual advisior and is moved to the remote farm of District Officer Jon Jonsson. His wife and one daughter are distressed by having a convicted murderer in their home, but the other daughter remembers a kindness Agnes showed her many years earlier and befriends the murderer. As Toti and the Jonsson women get to know Agnes, they must come to their own conclusions about Agnes’ guilt or innocence.
This debut novel is based on events that actually happened; Agnes was the last woman to be publicly beheaded in Iceland. Author Hannah Kent went to Iceland as a Rotary Exchange student and heard the story of Agnes. A number of years later, she did extensive research on Agnes and the murders. The inclusion of actual official documents, letters and extracts at the beginning of each chapter enhance the narrative. The novel has well-drawn characters and the harsh bleak environment creates a deeply atmospheric setting. Even though the reader knew what would ultimately happen to Agnes prior to starting the book, the novel kept the reader’s interest as information about Agnes and the murders is slowly revealed. Just like the characters in the book, the reader must decide how to judge Agnes.
Reviewed by ch, 10/13. Other reviews by ch.