In language possessing an intimacy and monumentality reminiscent of Icelandic composer Jon Leif's nature-inspired tone poems, Hannah Kent's debut novel Burial Rites tells the story of Agnes Magnusdottir, the last woman to be beheaded publicly in Iceland.
Charged with the murder of her former boss and lover Natan Ketilsson, Magnusdottir sits out her trial at a remote farm, her only regular interlocutor a young priest named Toti. As the months slip by and more details of Magnusdottir's life and character emerge, the family living on the farm develop a more ambivalent attitude towards their unwelcome guest and to her crime - if indeed she is guilty.
Basing her novel on extensive and intensive research into real events, Kent explores her ill-fated protagonist's early and, later, inner and outer lives, shifting between first and third person as well as reproducing translated excerpts from primary sources.
The later scenes in the book leading up to Magnusdottir's execution in 1829 are immediate, harrowing and poetic. "I'm not sure if I should be telling you this but before I wrote those scenes I had a lot of dreams where I was going to be killed," Kent says from her native Adelaide.
"That actually really helped in writing them. But it was also indicative of how obsessed I was with the story. I just wanted to do it justice."
Doing justice to Magnusdottir was one of Kent's chief motivations behind writing Burial Rites. "I first heard the about the story of Agnes Magnusdottir when I was living in Iceland," she says. "It was two things that made me decide I needed to write a book about it."
The first was Magnusdottir's absence as a real human being from the historical sources. "She would be referred to, but her life outside the context of her crime, of her early years, was completely neglected. I felt there were gaps in the record."
The second was the unambiguous language used to refer to Magnusdottir. "She was talked about as a monster or as a witch or spider weaving a web. Agnes had been shoved into this stereotype of the manipulative, scheming Lady Macbeth. But the more primary research I did, the more I discovered other aspects of her character that didn't really align with this idea.
"So the book came about as a desire to not put her back on the historical record, because I don't think fiction does this in any way. I wanted to suggest that there are other ways the murders could have been written about, other possibilities, and that history is not necessarily set in stone and that it's actually incredibly subjective."
According to Kent, Magnusdottir was incredibly intelligent. She was also a poet. "Things like that suggested not necessarily that she was good but that there was more to this person," Kent says. 'That she wasn't just a paper cut-out of a bad woman."
Kent was born in Adelaide in 1985. She won the 2011 Writing Australia Unpublished Manuscript Award for the manuscript of Burial Rites. The subsequent bidding war resulted in a two-book deal worth more than $1 million - unprecedented for an unpublished Australian author.
She currently teaches Creative Writing and English at Flinders University, where she is completing a PhD. She is co-founder and deputy editor of the literary journal Kill Your Darlings, and her writing has appeared in The Big Issue, Australian Book Review, The Wheeler Centre and Voiceworks, as well as many other publications.
As Kent writes elsewhere: "I needed to reach into the dark and grasp the thing that was haunting me: to exorcise Agnes' presence from my subconscious. Burial Rites is that exorcism. It is my dark love letter to Iceland, to her history, and her people. I lived in Iceland for a year and have been back every two years since. I always needed to write a book about Iceland to express the grip it had on my heart."