Remember back when I read And the Mountains Echoed, and I learned that “saga” actually refers specifically to stories originating in Iceland and Norway in the 12th and 13th centuries, and not just long, dramatic tales spanning many years? Well, that little tidbit of knowledge became relevant again as I read this book, a fictionalized story of a real historical figure, Agnes Magnusdottir, the last person to be executed in Iceland in 1830.
As the characters in the book repeatedly referred to “the sagas,” I decided more research was needed. Wikipedia (I’m not an English teacher anymore, so I can use Wikipedia when I want to, thankyouverymuch) informed me thusly:
“Icelandic sagas are prose histories mostly describing events that took place in Iceland in the 10th and early 11th centuries, during the so-called Saga Age. They are the best-known specimens of Icelandic literature. The Icelanders' sagas are a literary phenomenon of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. They are focused on history, especially genealogical and family history. They reflect the struggle and conflict that arose within the societies of the second and third generations of Icelandic settlers.”*
Magnificent. I love it when the act of reading a good book tricks me into accidentally learning something! It’s the best kind of learning, this learning by trickery. Practically painless.
Anyway, newly acquired knowledge of the Icelandic sagas aside, I highly recommend this book. Kent alternates between third-person omniscient and first-person narration, giving lyrical insight into Agnes’s state of mind as her execution approaches, and illuminating the other characters’ changing opinions of her guilt. The young priest who is ordered to counsel Agnes before her death strikes a particularly sweet and melancholy chord, as he slowly gets to know her and listens to her story. The family who is forced to house Agnes until her execution also warms to her in varying degrees as her stay with them goes on. Tension mounts even though we know the inevitable outcome—history is already written, after all—and Agnes’s fear is palpable in the final scene. Kent has created a lovely, haunting interpretation of a wrenching moment in history.
Bottom line: Read this book, and immerse yourself in a culture and time period that doesn’t get much play on the shelves of fiction.