It is only a factor of my busy life right now that I didn't manage to finish this book until this week, when it's just been released in paperback and I'm going to a talk/book signing with the author tonight at my favourite local independent bookstore, The King's English Bookshop.
I bought the hardcover the day it was released, though, and am appropriately shamed that I didn't manage to read it earlier. I'm not going to marvel - as so many reviewers have - at how incredible it is that this book is written by a debut author. I don't like that assumption that debut authors cannot manage such an excellent narrative with their first books.
This story is a fictionalized version of the final months of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last young woman to be publicly beheaded in Iceland, in the early nineteenth century. The story is related in alternating points of view: third person from the family who is forced to harbor Agnes on their farm after her death sentence is handed down but before her execution, third person from the reverend she requests to guide her in her final months, and first person from Agnes herself. The setting is cold and claustrophobic; the writing is intimate, warm, dark, gorgeous:
"Now comes the darkening sky and a cold wind that passes right through you, as though you are not there, it passes through you as though it does not care whether you are alive or dead, for you will be gone and the wind will still be there, licking the grass flat upon the ground, not caring whether the soil is at a freeze or thaw, for it will freeze and thaw again, and soon your bones, now hot with blood and thick-juicy with marrow, will be dry and brittle and flake and freeze and thaw with the weight of the dirt upon you, and the last moisture of your body will be drawn up to the surface by the grass, and the wind will come and knock it down and push you back against the rocks, or it will scrape you up under its nails and take you out to sea in a wild screaming of snow." (page 302)
"You will be lost. There is no final home, there is no burial, there is only a constant scattering, a thwarted journey that takes you everywhere without offering you a way home, for there is no home, there is only this cold island and your dark self spread thinly upon it until you take up the wind's howl and mimic its loneliness you are not going home you are gone silence will claim you, suck your life down into its black waters and churn out stars that might remember you, but if they do they will not say, they will not say, and if no one will say your name you are forgotten I am forgotten." (page 305)
These selections I've chosen are close to the end of the book and so represent Agnes' thoughts in her very final days; they may come across singularly as rambling and stream-of-consciousness, which isn't necessarily a representation of the whole of the narrative. I chose them because I found them to be some of the most beautiful lines in the book.
I imagined that inherit in this story would be questions and thoughts about capital punishment, and that Agnes' story would be presented as more black and white. And perhaps other readers might see these elements as the primary focus of this narrative but for me, I felt more intensely the roles and lives of women in Iceland during this time (a description that always makes a book sound academically dry and preachy - don't let me make that sound like the case here...), and about the nuances in our actions; some things we do can be seen by all as having the same purpose and intention but each person will walk away with a different moral judgement of that action.