Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

BurialRitesFrom Goodreads: Set against Iceland’s stark landscape, Hannah Kent brings to vivid life the story of Agnes, who, charged with the brutal murder of her former master, is sent to an isolated farm to await execution. Horrified at the prospect of housing a convicted murderer, the family at first avoids Agnes. Only Tóti, a priest Agnes has mysteriously chosen to be her spiritual guardian, seeks to understand her. But as Agnes’s death looms, the farmer’s wife and their daughters learn there is another side to the sensational story they’ve heard.

☺☺☺☺

I really enjoyed reading this book—despite the dark subject matter. I don’t think I’ve read a book set in Iceland yet, so that added some additional interest to the story. It is set in the nineteenth century, which I like to read about, and also has an historical aspect, as Agnes Magnúsdóttir was the last woman executed in Iceland. But most importantly, I like this book because it is very well written and evokes stark and beautiful pictures.

I was impressed by the setup of this novel. After the trial, Agnes is sent to live with District Officer Jón Jónsson and his family until her execution. Her time with this family is told from both Agnes’s point of view—in a first-person narrative— and from Margrét Jónsson’s point of view—in the third person. There are a few parts that focus on Tóti, Agnes’s spiritual guardian, and each chapter starts with official letters discussing the murder case and the logistics of the execution. This mix of perspective is effective and masterfully done.

It is not surprising that Agnes’s contemporaries would have viewed her as an evil witch. Poverty, loneliness, and hunger make it easy to vilify a person. When Agnes gets transferred to her new residence, people come to gawk at Agnes, but they keep their distance:

At first I did not know why these people stood about, men and women alike, each still and staring at me in silence. Then I understood that it was not me they stared at. I understood that these people did not see me. I was two dead men. I was a burning farm. I was a knife. I was blood.

As Agnes tells her story to Tóti, the people around her—together with the reader—get to know her, and it becomes hard to keep a distance. Agnes becomes human, and people start to care and even hope for her. The ending of this book is historical fact, but it is incredibly powerful. I haven’t read a book in several years that has ended with such a crescendo.

According to her Author’s Note, Hannah Kent set out to “supply a more ambiguous portrayal” of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, and she has succeeded without question.

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9 comments

  1. I haven’t read this one but the name sounds familiar. It might be one of those books I’ve heard about from someone somewhere on the net. I do like your review, it just made it more appealing. And 19th century is a bonus, too, I love books set in that time period. 😉

    • The book is in the running for the Women’s Price for Fiction, so maybe that’s why it sounds familiar to you. I only know your taste in books a little bit, but I think you would like this one.

      • Oh, I almost never pay attention to prizes and such. Several times I bought a book only to discover afterwards that it won some famous prize, like “The Sense of an Ending” by Julian Barnes. I loved this book, and when I finished it I found out it won the Man Booker Prize in 2011. Go figure, I picked a winner. 🙂
        It seems we have similar tastes in books; if it’s a book set in the 19th century, I am very much in favor of reading it.

    • I’m glad you liked Burial Rites; I’m still thinking about it. And thanks for the recommendation of River of Dust. I had never heard of it, but I just checked it out and it sounds like an interesting book. I’ve put it on my every-growing TBR list.

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