Review: Burial Rites

Title: Burial Rites Image

Author: Hannah Kent

Rating: ★★★★1/2

Provided Synopsis: 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?

Review: This is atmospheric writing at its finest. The writing is slow, as it must be, to explore the darkness and foreboding doom of the events. The prose is rich and clear; the emotion is palpable while you discover the harshness and claustrophobia of an Icelandic winter. This is stunning storytelling in the veins of an Icelandic saga that Agnes would surely enjoy.

Burial Rites is the story of Agnes Magnusdottir — a woman convicted of a double murder, theft, and arson, and sentenced to death. As she waits for her execution date, she is sent to live in the custody of District Officer Jon Jonsson and his family in an Icelandic valley that was once home to her. At first the family is horrified to have the murderess with them, but over time their feelings towards Agnes change due to exposure to her and the truth of what really occurred on that deadly night. The Reverend requested by Agnes to attend to her in her final days encourages her to speak, and what she has to tell rivets everyone to the spot. Hannah Kent excels as she writes the differing opinions towards Agnes; you can see the change in behavior from those around her and Kent has explored her characters so thoroughly that it is fascinating to behold.

Being based on true events, this novel does not demand the reader feel sympathy for Agnes. Instead, it trusts the reader to draw his or her own opinion with its portrayal of this woman and the circumstances that led to her presence and involvement in the murder. Take my advice: do not do any research into the life of Agnes Magnusdottir beforehand. I did not, which I believe aided the immersion into this story, along with my feelings and hopes of where it would take me in the end. Hours have passed since I finished the story, and I still find my emotions coiled in a taut ball in search of release.


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