First edition of the novelWe know from the beginning of the novel that Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the heroine of the story is going to be executed. But since it is historical fiction we expect to be treated to interior feelings and scenes that go unrecorded in the annals of drab history. We aren't disappointed.
Shoba & Kavita
The novel is slow to get under way. The reader is presented with tiresome dialogue imagined by the author to be the speech characteristic of figures of authority in those times in that isolated region. It almost sounds like a remote dialect translated into stilted English. We wonder at the earnestness with which district officers sought to bring about a spiritual reformation to convicted murderers. Lutheran ministers seemed available in plenty and up for the challenge too.
It is through the efforts of one such, Reverend Thorvardur Jónsson, called Tóti for short, we learn the woman’s side of the story. At first Tóti is focused on gospel lectures and one-way spiritual talk. But later in the face of defeat, the spirit leads him to stop sermonising and open up to let Agnes speak. Thus, we obtain the first-person narrative of the condemned woman; it is wide in scope and unsparing in detail about her poverty after abandonment by her mother. Then she finds a step-mother who realised Agnes was blessed with a wonderful mind and went on to make her fully literate, even well-read.
In the literature of independent women characters we often read their stories and regret they could not have been even more independent than they were — of the wayward affections of men. What was there in Natan Ketilsson to hold Agnes Magnúsdóttir in thrall? He never gave her very much at all apart from copulation, and even mistreated her. Did his money and his economic station hold out the hope she could forever escape poverty if only she could make him take her as his wife? But he never intended to. He was the randomly begetting kind, not the staidly marrying kind.
The readers were present in strength and their evident pleasure at the end of the reading is manifest in this photograph.
Thommo, Sunil, Saras, Priya, Zakia, Shoba, Pamela, Hemjit seated with Sugandhi to his right