In the last month, by some accident of fate, I’ve read two terrific novels based on true stories about women accused of murder. Burial Rites, the debut novel by Australian author Hannah Kent, is based on the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last person executed for murder in Iceland since 1830. Agnes, along with Fridrik Sigurdsson and Sigridur Gudmundsdóttir, was convicted of murdering her lover and employer, Natan Ketilsson and another man, Pêtur Jonsson. Agnes and Fridrik were condemned to death and beheaded on January 12, 1830. On appeal Sigridur received a lesser sentence and was sent to prison for life, where she died. Through two alternating narratives, Burial Rites tells the story both of Agnes’s last months living and working on the Jónsson family farm as she awaited her execution and, through her own voice, the events of her life leading up to and including the murder of Natan.
Cartwheel, the second novel by Jennifer DuBois, is loosely based on the story of Amanda Knox, the American college exchange student accused and convicted (along with her boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito) of murdering her British roommate, Meredith Kercher. DuBois offers us the story of Lily Hayes, who has gone to Buenos Aires, Argentina to study for a semester. The book opens with Lily’s father, Andrew, and her sister, Anna, arriving in Argentina soon after she has been placed into custody by authorities for the murder of her roommate, Katy Kellers, looping back to Lily’s arrival in Argentina and up to the time of the murder from her point of view and from the point of view of her “lover,” Sebastien LeCompte (“which sounded to Andrew like the name of a high-end suit store”).
Originally I had planned to write about each of these books separately, but I realized, after seeing that Amanda Knox will, yet again, be tried for murder beginning this week in Florence, Italy, that these stories have much in common, particularly the fact that in both cases, the notoriety of the accused has eclipsed everything else, even the victims. And in both cases, although accomplices were allegedly involved, the character of the woman in particular—Agnes and Lily/Amanda—is basically tried in a public court and found wanting. (Interestingly, although both Knox and Sollecito were convicted of murder, in DuBois’s story only Lily is apprehended and eventually arrested and tried.)
In Burial Rites, Agnes says to the priest confessor charged with bringing her to God before her execution, “To know what a person has done, and to know who a person is, are very different things.” The Jónsson family believes the stories they have heard about Agnes—that she is a violent criminal (and possibly a witch, as her lover Natan Ketilsson was also notorious in his own way for creating powerful potions to heal and to do who knows what else), capable of anything—but slowly, as they listen to her confessions to the priest, they begin to have a different understanding of her. And likewise, we begin to understand their prejudices against her come as much from what they know about Agnes herself (which is really very little) as from their own experiences.
This prejudice also happens also in Cartwheel, where the prosecutor Eduardo Campos believes he sees in Lily the same erratic character that he sees in his estranged wife Maria. Maria is an elusive mystery to Eduardo; she is whimsical and childish, but also dangerous because she holds his heart captive, and he believes he can never, ever please her. In Lily, who speaks Spanish confidently but often poorly, who is naive about certain cultural customs, and who is often overtaken by childish whimsy (as when she performs a cartwheel in an empty interrogation room, waiting for investigators to return from a break), Campos believes he sees a person who, when he sees her on video surveillance before she is picked up by authorities, “looked…harassed. Inconvenienced, If she looked anything at all.” He reads through her Facebook status and finds her wanting; he reads a piece of fiction written for a creative writing class and posted online almost as though it were a confession.
Perception and reality, public versus private selves, and the power of language are important to both stories. In both cases, even with letters and public documents and interviews and videos, we will never know what happened. In Burial Rites, as Agnes is taken from her first host family where she has been kept not even as well as a farm animal, she steps out into light after months in the darkness and sees a crowd. In that crowd, she spots a familiar face: “It was a comfort to see someone I recognized, and I smiled involuntarily. But the smile was wrong, and it unlocked the crowd’s fury.”
A cartwheel, a smile: these are not the actions of innocent women, the crowd believes. And beauty is also suspect. In Burial Rites, Lauga, the Jónsson’s youngest daughter, asks her mother Margrét “whether she thought there would be an outward hint of the evil that drives a person to murder. Evidence of the Devil: a harelip, a snaggle tooth, a birthmark; some small outer defect.” Margrét tells Lauga no, but then goes on to wonder if Agnes might not be beautiful: “It was not so hard to believe a beautiful woman capable of murder, Margrét thought. As it says in the sagas, Opt er flagð í fógru skinni. A witch often has fair skin.”
Andrew laments his daughter’s inability to dress herself “appropriately” in the heat of Buenos Aires. At a religious landmark, she has taken a picture of herself wearing a spaghetti-strapped tank top that doesn’t adequately cover her generous bosom. This picture is picked up by the media and also seen as evidence of some moral flaw by the prosecutor Campos.
Yesterday I saw a picture of Amanda Knox online—she was unsmiling, her long dark hair swept back from her face as though caught by a strong breeze—and I thought, in the next moment she might have cocked her head, turned to someone familiar, perhaps even given a smile. She is pretty either way, that much is undeniable. I don’t know when or where the picture was taken, or who she was with, but this is the image the media has chosen to present. Who is she really? We do not know.
Both stories are compelling, both stories will always present us with more questions than answers. Kent does a magnificent job of taking us to early Nineteenth century Iceland, of tying in historical research and setting a compelling scene that drives the narrative and helps us to understand Agnes all the better. If the book has a flaw, it’s that at times Kent’s writing is a bit over the top. Ravens, snow, black against white, swirling snow clouds, storms—ominous portents, we get it. (She also uses some form of the word “sour” on what seems like every other page during the first 50 pages or so, but thankfully stops.) But she has filled in the gaps of her research and created such compelling characters, not only in Agnes but in Margrét and Toti, Agnes’s priest confessor, and their story easily carries the reader away. I read all but 30 pages during a nine hour plane flight, and I might have finished had I not stopped to do things like eat and stretch my legs.
In my opinion DuBois had a bigger challenge, as the Amanda Knox story is current and ongoing. I haven’t followed it closely myself, but I can imagine someone who has might feel the need to pick apart the details. The book drags a bit when it follows the other characters, and DuBois offers up a slightly heavy-handed Hayes family history that seems meant to add weight to the story, but overall the characters are if not compelling then fully realized. But truly Lily’s story is her own, and for me she came to life as her own person. Sometimes while reading I felt an overwhelming sadness for Lily, just as I did for Agnes, because in everything she was only a person who was simply trying to be:
“She sat in bars drinking Quilmes and trying to look mysterious; she sat in cafes eating alfajors and licking powdered sugar off her fingers and not minding that she looked silly.
She would be dead one day, but she was not dead yet.”
Disclosure: I received the ebook version of Cartwheel from NetGalley. I read my copy of Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites.