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?
Burial Rites is one of those truth is stranger than fiction but fiction isn't as forgiving even when the truth (certain versions of it anyway - which is kind of the point) sets you free kind of reads. Its fairly gut wrenching and very slow paced but there's also a kind of method to the madness in the form that like life no one can truly know the whole story (considering the book is loosely based on actual events) its depicted and executed very well. Although Burial Rites should come with a content warning I believe the graphic detail is sort of warranted because it really brings to light just how extreme a situation it is and the way that situation can affect a person so readers really get a better grounding in what Kent is trying to get across. (Note, I prefer the cover on the print edition I have over the new digital one. I feel it suits the emotional environment better than the new one) Four stars for Burial Rites.
“Haunting” is the best word to describe this début novel by Hannah Kent. Set in the nineteenth century Iceland, the novel deals with matter of perception: how do you see yourself and how others see you. The novel also gently introduces the reader to the historical Iceland.
Agnes Magnúsdóttir - central character of the story - is condemned to death for the brutal murder of two men. She is placed under the custody to live out her last days with a farming family in the north of Iceland. At first, the family is horrified and outraged at the prospect of having a murderess under their roof, but come to accept it as a necessary evil and duty to the government. Only the young Assistant Reverend, Tóti Jónsson, is willing to spend time listening to Agnes’s story in hope of bringing her closer to God. As the year progresses and the necessity and needs of everyday life force the family to work harder together, they begin to discover a different side to Agnes that is not shared in people’s gossips and assumptions about the woman.
The novel is inspired by the true life events. Every chapter begins with a related to the event historic evidence or correspondence of the persons involved. You can sense the depth of research that the author has done to convey the authenticity of the story. I appreciated that whilst reading the book. When I, driven by curiosity, started looking on-line about the events set in the book, I discovered contradictory views to the one Kent presents in her novel. However, in the afterword Kent shares that her goal was not to prove whether Agnes was guilty or not. Her concern was that many women at the time ‘were unable to author their public identity’, and any woman who dared to step outside the lines of the accepted standards were seen as suspicious (pp.350-351). Kent’s interest to tell the story of Agnes was to represent the ambiguity and humanity of the woman and leave the judging to the reader.
Burial Rites is based on the true story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last woman to be executed in Iceland. In the early 1800s, Agnes is convicted of stabbing her employer to death and sent to a remote farm until the government can arrange her beheading. While she is waiting for her execution, she tells her life story to a priest and the family who owns the farm.
The best word that I can use to describe this book is “visceral.” The novel is description-heavy, and some of the description is intense. If you’re going to read this, be prepared for a lot of talk about bodily functions and fluids. This book doesn’t hide anything from the reader. Even the gross stuff is in there.
To counteract the poop-and-pee descriptions, there are beautiful descriptions of the Icelandic landscape and culture. I’ve never been to Iceland, but I feel like I know so much about it after reading this book. The writing is brilliant. The author does an amazing job of capturing the rugged remoteness of the country. It’s easy to get caught up in this story and not want to put it down. I’m still thinking about it, even though I finished the book a week ago.
Other than the description, the best part of this novel is the suspense. It’s very subtle. You know at the beginning of the book that Agnes will be executed eventually, and you spend the entire book waiting for it to happen. Agnes doesn’t know when she will be killed, so the reader and the character are both dreading the moment when someone shows up at the door to lead Agnes to her death.
I think the execution scene is handled perfectly. It’s intense and terrifying without being melodramatic.
I only have two minor rants about this book. Rant 1: I hate it when a line of dialogue starts with the phrase “As you know.” If the other characters already know, WHY ARE YOU TELLING THEM? It drives me bananas.
Rant 2: There is so much description in this book, but I had trouble picturing the house where Agnes is being kept. This is frustrating because most of the story takes place in and around this house.
Those are my only gripes. I love pretty much everything about this novel. It actually reminds me of Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood, so if you like that book, you’ll probably like this one.