Review by JJ Marsh
The Baileys Prize Shortlist
What We Thought:1828 Iceland. A woman, with one male and one female accomplice, murders her lover. Convicted by the court, she is sentenced to death by beheading.
Icelandic custom involves sending its criminals to Denmark for their punishment, but here, the District Council decides to make an example of the three. They will meet their fate on Icelandic soil.
The system entails several appeals and deliberations, meaning a potential delay of months, even years before the sentence can be
applied. So the three convicts are put to work on District Officers’
Agnes Magnúsdóttir is sent to Kornsá, and the farm of Jón Jónsson.
She is to work alongside Jón, his wife Margrét and his daughters, Lauga
and Steina. The shock of hosting a murderess throws ripples of confusion
through the family. When news reaches novice priest, Reverend Tóti,
that he is to be her spiritual counsellor, even the servant says, ‘Good
Lord, they pick a mouse to tame a cat’.
The presence of the criminal excites and alarms the neighbours, but
the household finds its own way of dealing with the unwanted guest.
Steina is bewitched, Lauga is detached and Margrét sees Agnes for what
she is – a woman, suffering.
The subtle change and adaptation of each character to the circumstances reminds me of the so-subtle-you-don’t-notice shifts in Brooklyn,
by Colm Tóibín. In addition, the author’s choice of changing points of
view, evocative detail of Icelandic peasant hardships and use of
letters, documents and storytelling allows the reader to piece together a
very different account to the official rendering of events.
A delicate, understated, hot under a cold surface story that had me
in heaving sobs at the end. By which I mean to say, I loved it.
You'll enjoy this if you liked: The Tenderness of Wolves, My Ántonia, Dead Man Walking
Avoid if you dislike: Icelandic culture, evocation of cold winters, based on true stories
Ideal accompaniments: Skyr, coffee with a slug of akvavit, Jan Garbarek's Rites