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When Vikings come to Christ: Book review of Burial Rites

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Burial Rites coverA review of Burial Rites by Hannah Kent. Published in Australia by Picador.

The setting is Iceland in the 1900s, where convicted murderess Agnes Magnusdottir is sent to wait out the time until her execution at the farm of district officer Jon Jonsson, with his wife Margret, and their two daughters.

Life is hard and the farm is not doing well, but the meagre financial compensation for minding a convicted killer is little relief for Margret, who is scared for the safety of herself and her daughters. However, Agnes’ presence ends up being a boon to the family. She turns out to be a hard worker, literate and intelligent. She provides remedies to ease the ails of Margret, and helps out with a painful birth.
The daughters are divided in their response to Agnes. Steina, the elder, finds her a fascinating and welcome companion during their chores. Lauga is much more judgmental.

This captivating story is a promising first novel for Adelaide-based Hannah Kent. It is based on real events, the last execution in Iceland, which Kent first heard as a Rotary Exchange student. She has done extensive research, and this book is a dramatisation of actual historical events.

Kent’s concern was that Agnes was portrayed as a “black” woman generally, even a witch, but her research began to unearth a more multi-dimensional character. She discovered tell-tale signs of a difficult life, but then also hints of intelligence and literacy. In an interview from The Age, she talks about using quotes from historical records to portray a woman who was more a victim than a villain.

Olafur Tryggvason was a Viking Christian convert who became king of Norway and sent Christian missionaries to Iceland.

Another great Australian historical fiction writer Geraldine Brooks mentored Kent, encouraging her to explore the emotional connection between Agnes and the family she is confined with.

The unpublished manuscript won an award and stimulated a bidding war that reaped more than a million dollars for Kent, a new record.

What is interesting is the degree to which Kent reproduces the very Christian nature of the society in Iceland at this time. Olafur Tryggvason was a Viking Christian convert who became king of Norway and sent Christian missionaries to Iceland. Conversion was completed sometime after 1015, and the nation continued to practise the Christian faith, Catholicism and then Protestantism.

Many of the historical sources that Kent used were church-related records, including parish lists, baptisms and results of tests of catechisms prior to confirmation.

Most of the story is told in conversation between Agnes and the Assistant Priest, Toti Jonsson, who is sent to prepare her soul for death. Toti at first uses the blunt methods suggested to him: forced biblical recitations, confession and prayers. However, he ends up deciding that his best recourse is “the gentle and enquiring tones of a friend” providing her “with a final audience to her life’s lonely narrative”.

The gospel is told powerfully in the words of the Icelandic Burial Hymn quoted after the execution:

I think upon my Saviour,
I trust His power to keep,
His mighty arm enfolds me
Awaking and in sleep.
Christ is my rock, my courage;
Christ is my soul’s true life;
And Christ (my still heart knows it)
Will bear me through the strife.

Thus in Christ’s name I’m living;
Thus in Christ’s name I’ll die;
I’ll fear not though life’s vigour
From Death’s cold shadow fly.
O Grave, where is thy triumph?
O Death, where is thy sting?
“Come when thou wilt, and welcome!”
Secure in Christ I sing.

Perhaps this choice of topic is surprising for an Australian writer, however I hope that its success will help reveal the significance of a Christian heritage for other nations as well as Australia. It would be an interesting book to suggest to a friend or family member as a conversation starter.

KARA MARTIN is the Associate Dean of the Marketplace Institute, Ridley Melbourne, has been a lecturer with School of Christian Studies, and Wesley Institute and is an avid reader and book group attendee. Kara does book reviews for Hope 103.2’s Open House.

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