Gwen Moffat lives in Cumbria. Her novels are set in remote communities ranging from the Hebrides to the American West. The crimes fit their environment, swelling that dreadful record of sin in the smiling countryside cited by Sherlock Holmes. The style echoes this: rustic charm masking horror.
Iceland in the 1820s: a remote northern settlement where two men have been murdered, their killers tried and convicted. Agnes, their purported leader, is lodged with a farming family pending her execution. As she toils with her gaolers through the sub-Arctic summer her relations with the hostile women – mother and two daughters – changes subtly. Meanwhile some kind of bond develops with the shy and susceptible priest detailed to bring her to repentance and to God.
Initially Agnes is taciturn but the narrative is interspersed with her thoughts, memories, terrors until eventually she reveals the facts surrounding the murders to the sick mother, the catalyst being the imminent death of both.
The writing is tediously simple, often crude, echoing the privations of an impoverished community at the mercy of a ghastly climate where solitude can drive people mad. The reader is overwhelmed by the environment and the conditions it imposes. All is meticulously researched. Apparently Icelanders have been literate for centuries but if this story is credible their mental attitudes didn’t keep pace. In the 19th century superstition was rife; one has the impression of a hierarchy part primitive, part feudal yet shot through with sudden sophistication. Paupers were enslaved, local people bound to urban officials themselves subject to the king in Denmark. Here, a few miles short of the Arctic Circle, the manufacture, cost, and subsequent disposal of the axe that is to behead a traumatised woman is discussed in elegant prose in a letter from the District Commissioner to his Deputy Governor.
Burial Rites is a first novel, based on actual events. There are some good ideas but the theme: imagining and depicting the nebulous psyche of a convicted killer in a far time and country was too ambitious.