Burial Rites – Hannah Kent

Published October 28, 2013 by bibliobeth


What’s it all about?:

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?

What did I think?:

This brilliant debut novel first came to my attention when it was picked for the Waterstones Eleven this year, please see my previous post HERE. It is based on a true story set in Iceland in 1829, where three people are charged with the murder of two men, Natan Ketilsson and Petur Jonsson and are awaiting execution. Our main character, Agnes Magnusdottir is one of those three, and they mean to make an example out of her by proceeding with her sentence, whilst giving one of her conspirators a reprieve, mainly for being a “pretty young thing,” which apparently appeals to the public’s sympathy in a case such as this. The date of the execution of Agnes was also the last recorded instance of capital punishment in Iceland, so obviously the case is notable and more memorable. However, Agnes is proving a little too expensive to keep in the regular prisoner cells, so the District Commissioner Bjorn Blondal decides to house the prisoner with one of his officials on a small farm until the date of her death could be determined. The family concerned, consisting of husband Jon, his wife Margret and their two daughters Lauga and Steina are understandably terrified and disgusted to hear that they will be housing a murderer, and have no idea what to expect or how to act around her. Nor too does the local Assistant Reverend Tóti, when he hears that Agnes has requested him to be her spiritual advisor while she stays on the farm and before she meets her Maker. When Agnes arrives though, they are all taken aback when they come to realise that there might be another side to the story that they have not yet considered.

Firstly, it is obvious when reading this novel how much effort and research the author must have carried out on this subject before writing it. It is told from a number of perspectives, the most interesting being Agnes, and the reader is swept along with the emotion of her impending death, and the brutality of the justice system. We are also treated to transcripts of letters at the beginning of each chapter written between those overseeing Agnes’ sentence, including details of the costings of the axe and other materials purchased especially for the execution, which seems fairly surreal but provided that touch of authenticity. Some parts of the story are fairly graphic and brutal, but at no time did I feel that this was too much, and in fact added to the poignancy of my reading experience. The characters were all written with considerable depth, and I still find myself thinking about them days later, and the harsh, unforgiving conditions and poverty experienced by many Icelanders at that time really gives the reader food for thought and complements the tale perfectly. This is a hugely talented author and a phenomenal debut, this is one author I will definitely be added to my “automatic buy” list.

Would I recommend it?:

But of course!

Star rating (out of 5):


5 comments on “Burial Rites – Hannah Kent

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