The author, Hannah Kent, imagines the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir who was found guilty, along with two others, and executed (beheaded) for murdering Natan Ketilsson and Pétur Jónsson. The novel is based on a true story that took place in 1828 Iceland; this was the last execution in that country. Through meticulous research and reliance on the country’s strong oral tradition, the author builds a story around what led up to and the reason for the killings.
Agnes is sent to live with the family who occupies the farm in Kornsá while she waits to learn when her execution will take place. Initially, she shares her story, starting from her birth, with Assistant Reverend Tóti who is the religious person she asked to be assigned to her as she prepares herself for execution and, eventually, the family. She tells them that she met Natan, a reputed medicine man/sorcerer and womanizer, at a farm she was working on; he befriended and then seduced her. He asks her to come to his very remote farm, Illugastadir, to be his housekeeper and oversee Sigga, a maidservant already living there. Shortly after she arrives, Agnes begins to realize that Natan hasn’t been truthful with her - not about her role at the farm, Sigga’s relationship to him nor about himself. Natan’s reputed lover, the poet Rosa, shows up one day with her child by Natan on her hip and gives Agnes, albeit not very friendly, a warning about Natan. Their nearest neighbor, Fridrik Sigurdsson, begins to make visits with occasional long periods of stays. He is a 19 year old mean tempered, jealous young man who ends up developing a relationship with Sigga. As the long, bleak Icelandic winter progresses, the relationships shift and become very tense, ultimately culminating in the murders.
The author does an eloquent job painting a bleak, harsh, and lonely picture of life in the northern part of Iceland. She achieves this in large part due to her repetition of images: fires fueled by dung, the constant unpleasant odor of animals and dirty bodies, temperatures so cold that ice forms while characters sleep. Inter dispersed between chapters are copies of correspondence between the various officials in charge of carrying out the punishment. There is such a matter of fact tone to these documents it sends shivers down the spine; that men could talk of putting to death two people so unemotionally has an almost nightmarish quality to it.