Burial Rites – Book Review


Burial Rites by Hannah Kent.

This novel is a debut and the lady who wrote it is a) younger than me, and b) under 30. So massive props to Hannah Kent. Secondly, this was a manuscript that publishers came to her for. Not vice versa. That’s pretty much unheard of for a debut novel. Incidentally she is Australian and comes from the state of South Australia.

But none of that should really make any difference in reading this book. This has been a highly acclaimed debut novel and Kent is cited as being extremely accomplished for a young, inexperienced author.

The book was picked by member of our book club, yet Kent’s chosen topic had already drawn me to the novel. Her subject is the last person to be executed in Iceland, and that person was Agnes Magnusdottir in 1830. She was condemned to death by beheading for the murder of two men. For her final months, while she awaited her execution date, she was sent to live with a family on a farm – one of many of this type of family in those days in Iceland. Burial Rites is the story of those months but takes a retrospective look over Agnes’ life.

Mostly, to me, this story said a lot about ‘perspective’ and how we judge a person based on what we actually don’t know about them. Agnes was condemned and therefore was considered to be guilty by the family she went to live with and all those around her. But, for the entire duration of the book, as a reader I questioned whether she was guilty as charged. The reason I questioned it was because of the way in which we get to know the ‘real’ Agnes.

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

And this of course, was Kent’s intention. When she went to Iceland for a student exchange trip she was completely taken in by the country and in turn, by the story of Agnes. She came home with, as her mother describes it ‘an obsession’ and almost a ‘strange connection’ with Agnes. She set about trying to find out more details about Agnes although it was a hard job because very little existed. But over an extended period and a second trip to Iceland with her family, Kent was able to write her major thesis on Agnes and this is how the novel was conceived.

If you watch this short film (it’s about 20 minutes) you will understand a lot more about the intriguing journey Hannah Kent embarked on when she started to learn and write about Agnes. Like many authors and their literary heroes and heroines it seems there is an unmistakable and impenetrable bond between the two. That is certainly true of Kent and Agnes Magnusdottir.

After I read the book I discovered that Kent was mentored by one of my favourite authors – Geraldine Brooks. And certainly if you like Brooks’ novels you will like this. Like Brooks’ work, Burial Rites is an historical novel and it is based around characters that are real. But the relationships, the details of the murder, the substance of Agnes’ characterisation are all created purely by Kent. This doesn’t deter from the experience of reading this novel. I felt as though I was reading the story as it really happened. The reader is pulled in to Agnes’ plight and what is almost her ‘salvation’ in her days at the farm, leading to her impending execution.

“God has had His chance to free me, and for reasons known to Him alone, He has pinned me to ill fortune, and although I have struggled, I am run through and through with disaster; I am knifed to the hilt with fate.”

The above quote, in my mind, sums up how the reader feels by the end – ‘knifed to the hilt’ – it is a crushing and heartbreaking end, and this is despite the fact that we already know how it’s going to turn out! I felt so sucked into Agnes’ story that I took every blow with her. Furthermore, Kent does a stunning job of describing the last few hours of Agnes’ life – I mean, think about how an author might go about explaining, from the perspective of the condemned, how they might be feeling – what is going through their mind in their final hours?

There is a delirious nature to Agnes’ narrative at this point, and when we move (as is common within the book – the story is told from several different voices, with Agnes being the only narrative to remain in the first person) to the priest, Toti’s narrative we see the utter terror that Agnes is feeling… and that is the time at which I felt so ripped apart by this story.

This novel is a stunning story, powerfully told. But more than that it might draw the reader in so much that they want to go to Iceland and see the haunting landscape for themselves. Many of us at book club found ourselves quite interested in the way of life, the countryside painted by Kent and the history of the country of Iceland.

The reader should expect to be pulled under by Agnes’ tale and prepare themselves to want to know more about Iceland!
If you know the style of my reviews I don’t like to tell much because if it’s worth reading then hopefully you’ll find these things out for yourself. I guess I’m just selling you the literary experience. And with Burial Rites I believe it’s a fantastic one.

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