Book Review – Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

December 13, 2013 Bonnie Adult, Book Reviews, Read in 2013 6 Comments

I received this book free from the Publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Book Review – Burial Rites by Hannah KentBurial Rites by Hannah Kent
Published by Little Brown and Company on September 10th 2013
Pages: 336
Genres: Historical Fiction, Mystery
Format: Hardcover
Source: the Publisher
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four-half-stars

A brilliant literary debut, inspired by a true story: the final days of a young woman accused of murder in Iceland in 1829.

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.

Riveting and rich with lyricism, BURIAL RITES evokes a dramatic existence in a distant time and place, and asks the question, how can one woman hope to endure when her life depends upon the stories told by others?

‘Criminal. The word hangs in the air. Heavy, unmoved by the bluster of the wind.
I want to shake my head. That word does not belong to me, I want to say. It doesn’t fit me or who I am. It’s another word, and it belongs to another person.’

Burial Rites is based on the true story of an Icelandic woman that was beheaded in 1829 for a double murder authorities believed her to have had a part in. It was the last public execution to take place in Iceland. Due to the lack of prisons in Iceland at the time, Agnes Magnúsdóttir was sent to a farm and was watched over by the farmer’s wife and their two daughters until it came time for her execution. Based on research conducted by the author, Agnes was typically portrayed in a harsh light so Kent sought to share her side of things and the pain that she suffered as well. Burial Rites is the re-imagined last months of Agnes’ life.

The story is written from several different points of view, but primarily from Agnes’ and the farmer’s wife, Margrét. Agnes’ quiet desolation was palpable and while I felt thoroughly immersed in her scenes, I welcomed the break. It did have the negative effect of disrupting the flow of the story at times though. Margrét’s initial scenes reflected a family frightened to have a murderess in their midst and a growing bitterness at being forced to care for her. Agnes is not ill treated, but she is ignored as much as possible and left to stew in her own thoughts. The only individual that Agnes has to share her thoughts with is her spiritual guardian, a young assistant priest by the name of Tóti. As time progresses the family begins to not only become accustomed to Agnes’ company but become thankful for the extra set of hands and the assistance she provides to the struggling family. She shares her confession of what happened the night of the murders with the family and Tóti. Her words forever changes the families opinion of her.

“To know what a person has done, and to know who a person is, are very different things.” 

The writing is extremely eloquent for a debut novel. Her prose elicits a picturesque portrait of Iceland and its harsh climates while also evoking a suffocating sense of despair. Burial Rites is a compelling tale of heartbreak and sorrow that illustrates how a truth is never one-sided.

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6 Responses to “Book Review – Burial Rites by Hannah Kent”

  1. Jessie

    I don’t know how I missed this one? I never heard anything about it until Jaime from the Broke and the Bookish posted about it earlier this week! And now this review! How did I miss it? It certainly sounds like my kind of historical fiction/contemporary read.

    And you rated it four stars! Argh. It may be emotionally draining, but I am very intrigued by this book. And you don’t see a lot of novels set in Iceland! The fact that this is based on a true story is a bit grisly (as is the way she died) but damned if that kinda story doesn’t always draw me in.

    You’ve convinced me, Bonnie. I need to read this ASAP.
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  2. Amanda @ Late Nights with Good Books

    I recently read this one myself and loved it. I was very surprised it is a debut, because it is so beautifully written and compellingly told. I do agree with you that Agnes’ voice, while beautiful, sometimes was a bit too much. It almost read like poetry to me, and so breaks to other narrators were appreciated. Still, though, I found that I was quite impressed with this book – one of my top reads for this year!
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