As a teenage exchange student in an isolated town in northern Iceland, Hannah Kent [pictured] found the story of Agnes Magnusdottir, the last person executed in Iceland for murder, playing on her mind.
Now, as a creative writing student at Flinders, Hannah is in the process of turning the grim history into a novel.
In 1828, Agnes, another servant girl and a youth were convicted of stabbing to death a well-known and charismatic rural doctor and of making an unsuccessful attempt to hide the crime by arson. Following the trial and her conviction, Agnes was publicly beheaded with an axe in 1830.
The novel is set during Agnes’s six-month detention in a farmhouse as she awaits her execution.
Through painstaking historical research, which has included translating Icelandic documents, Hannah has marshalled the scant facts of the case and used her local knowledge to colour the narrative. But her chief challenge lies in letting the character of Agnes “speak for herself”.
In taking on a fictionalised biography, Hannah says she has followed rules suggested by novelist Margaret Atwood.
“What I’ve tried to do is stay true to what is known and what is factual; where something is ambiguous, I’ve written what my research suggests is the most likely scenario; and where there are outright gaps I’ve felt free to invent,” she said.
“One of the reasons I want to write this story is to give Agnes a voice, which she’s been denied all these years.”
Hannah said the eerie atmosphere and landscapes of Iceland permeate the book, and are still vivid in her own mind.
“Iceland had a terrific effect on me, and changed the person that I was. It’s a place that stays with you,” she said.
To date, Hannah’s efforts have seen her awarded the University’s honours thesis prize for English, with one of the examiners describing her portrait of Agnes as “little short of astonishing”. She is continuing to work on the draft of the novel for her PhD, under the supervision of Dr Ruth Starke.