“A story of swirling sagas, poetry, bitterness, claustrophobia … through the long countdown towards Agnes’s fate, it is Kent’s heart-racing imagery that lingers … even the bleakness of Agnes’s end, its gut-churning fear, holds an exhilaration that borders on the sublime.”


The beauty of the snow that stretches as far as the eye can see, the harshness of the cold that brings people to their knees, the multi coloured night sky with glittering stars, the blizzard that devastates everything in its path.. In a farm on this landscape of contrasts that is Iceland,a woman is sent to wait out her last days before facing the executioner’s axe in the nineteenth century.

Agnes Magnusdottir… Criminal, murderess, immoral, witch… these are the names that have attached themselves to this woman, condemned along with two others to die for the murder of two men.. her employer Natan Ketilsson and a farm hand Petur Jonson.

Forced to live out her last days in the midst of hostility from the farm family she is living with and the whispers and dirty looks of the villagers who visit, Agnes seems to withdraw into herself. Her thoughts of despair cloak her as her mind screams that there is more to her that no one wants to know.

Is she what everyone says she is or is there a hidden truth buried so deep under the story built around her that layers have to be removed to get to it? Is anyone even interested in knowing? Toti,a young assistant priest, chosen by Agnes as her spiritual advisor, despite his nervousness at the fraught tension filled atmosphere he finds himself in, persists with her until he realizes that more than prayer, it is an ear to listen that she seeks desperately.

Through long conversations in the dark of the badstofa, the living and sleeping quarters of the farm building, and soul searching monologues that she has in her own mind, Agnes reveals the pain of being a child abandoned to the parish and treated as an orphan, shuttled from farm to farm, losing everyone she ever loved and yet growing into a woman who dreamt of a family of her own. And slowly emerges a picture of the events that have left her on the brink of death.

Interspersed with Agnes’ narration of her life story is the routine of the Icelandic people, their harvests, lambing, celebrations, births, deaths, their mythic stories and religious beliefs and in all this the harsh conditions play a major role.

I listened to this book and the way the narrator, Morven Christie has captured the pathos of Agnes is very moving. Her silent monologues where her feelings on this matter are running through her mind constantly, are brilliantly told. She gives the other characters, minor and major, their own unique voices too. The names of places and people with the unique pronunciations is very pleasing to hear.This elevates the book in a way that reading it myself may not have.

In this attempt to present a  version of  Agnes’story that not many who wrote about this case could conceive of, Hannah Kent has tried to give her that which was denied to her in real life(based as the story is on a real woman who was the last to be executed in Iceland)… dignity and the freedom to be heard.

And this is what makes it a haunting, beautiful book to listen to.


Reviewed by:

Priya Prakash

Added 30th August 2020

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Priya Prakash