All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Burial Rites – Hannah Kent

on May 29, 2013

Burial RitesBurial Rites
Hannah Kent
2013, 330p
Read from my TBR pile

It is 1829 in Iceland and Agnes Magnúsdóttir has been condemned to death her for her part in a heinous crime. Two men were brutally murdered – one with one blow from a hammer, the other the hammer blow didn’t result in death and a knife was used. Then the house that contained the bodies was set fire to, presumably to hide evidence of murder.

Agnes is sent to the home of District Officer Jón Jónsson and his family – wife Margrét and their two daughters. No one in the family are particularly enthused about having to house a murderess for some time but given that as District Officer, Jón has a duty that means he cannot refuse. They are also to be compensated for their trouble and being poor, anything at all will be a help to their rather meager coffers. As well as lodging with the family, Agnes will have regular visits from a local Assistant Reverend named Tóti who is charged with the position as Agnes’s spiritual guardian for her preparation to meet her maker. The idea is to get her to repent through prayer and embracing of God so that she may go in peace.

At first the family are frightened of Agnes, terrified that they could be the next ones to be murdered in their beds. They avoid talking to her, even looking at her if possible, treating her as worse than a servant. Slowly however, they come to relax around her, to accept her as part of the familiar to them. Only Tóti makes any attempt to connect with Agnes but she is reluctant to pray with him so instead Tóti tries a different method to reach out to the condemned woman – he asks her her story.

Due to the winter setting in, the family are often all in the same room when Agnes begins to tell her story. They find themselves listening in to her words, hearing her story. Her childhood of abandonment and poverty, leading to one position in service after another until she thought she’d found a man who loved her only to discover that nothing could be further from the truth. Slowly Agnes seeps under their skin until they realise that it’s not going to be easy to have to say goodbye. In fact it might be one of the most difficult things that they have to do.

Burial Rites is getting a lot of promotion and publicity recently and with good reason. Based on a true story, it’s written in a steady but compelling way from various different points of view. Agnes’s view is always told in the first person but there are other people, such as Margrét and Tóti who contribute a third person narrative. It’s a slow story, that gives the reader time to appreciate the heinous crime that Agnes has been accused and convicted of and also the family’s horrified reaction to having to house her until such time as her execution can be carried out. Those convicted of such a crime would normally have been sent to the mainland (Denmark) for punishment but because of the savagery it’s like they want to make an example of Agnes and Friðrik, her apparent co-conspirator and they are to be executed in Iceland.

The story unfolds slowly – Agnes’s tale coming in bits and pieces, sometimes in her own fractured rememberings and then as Tóti questions her on her background, desperate to connect with her in some way, perhaps provide her with some form of peace, if not the spiritual relief he was engaged for, before she faces her execution. Her story is not quite what I expected it to be but it makes for a riveting read as she extols her less than happy life for her host family, who are slowly overcoming their fears, their judgements and their prejudices. Agnes has slowly wormed her way into the core thread of the household with her quiet ability to contribute to to the workload and her knowledge of herbs, which has been helpful on more than one occasion. It is clear that whatever they were expecting of a woman convicted of a brutal murder, Agnes does not fit the image.

I was surprised by just how invested I became in Agnes’s story and I was eager to race through the latter part of the book where she begins really getting to the heart of it but I also didn’t want the book to end. It’s written in such a way that it points you so well towards it’s rather dramatic conclusion, which is not unexpected but was still horrifying nonetheless. I enjoyed the way in which Kent skillfully integrated Agnes into the lives of her hosts, each and every one of them. Even the most resentful and reluctant of them became desperately unhappy with the fate of Agnes hanging over them towards the end – they came to see her as a woman, one who had been ill treated and manipulated, mocked, abused and abandoned. They saw the person, not the deed, not what they had been told, what had been cast about as gossip. Kent’s beautiful prose humanises her, draws sympathy from the reader the closer Agnes moves towards her fate.

Burial Rites is a clever and compelling debut novel comprising of a fascinating story using real life characters and embellishing with a fiction. The setting was first rate – a wintery Iceland in all its white and snowy glory was definitely new to me and I love learning and reading about new places. It is definitely one to recommend.


Book #132 of 2013


Burial Rites is book #57 read and reviewed for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013

8 responses to “Burial Rites – Hannah Kent

  1. This sounds very interesting. So fascinated with Iceland I intend buying this book. Such an interesting country with some first class musicians too.

  2. Lily Malone says:

    Great review Bree, thank you.

  3. This one is on my TBR list – have read great reviews.

  4. […] Funnell (Newtown Review of Books) says it “grips like a northern winter” and Bree (1 girl 2 many books) says it’s “clever and compelling” and was surprised “by just how […]

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