Book: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent
Genres: Historical Fiction, Mystery
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Publication Date: September 10, 2013
Synopsis: Burial Rites gives a fictional account of the final days of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last woman to be executed in Iceland. Convicted of murdering her former master, Natan Ketilsson, Agnes is sent to live with a family on a remote farm until her execution. While the family reluctantly houses Agnes, a young priest named Tóti is chosen to give her spiritual guidance, and Agnes slowly begins to reveal the truth of what really happened.
Thoughts: Burial Rites is one of the most beautifully written books I’ve read in a while. Kent’s writing is hauntingly illustrative, particularly so in Agnes’s first-person narrative. This is also one of the darkest books I’ve ever read; Agnes’s story is one without mercy or hope, and Kent doesn’t take many liberties with the facts. Nevertheless, the style and quality of the writing in Burial Rites is enough to make it a worthy read, albeit depressing.
As Kent discusses in the afterword, history has not remembered Agnes favorably; and while the book presents a less one-sided view of Agnes, she isn’t necessarily likable in the novel. Instead, Burial Rites humanizes Agnes in a way that makes you grieve for her. Margret, her keeper at the farm, was perhaps the most reflective of myself as a reader in terms of how my view of Agnes changed throughout the novel. Utterly hostile towards Agnes upon her arrival at the farm, Margret slowly begins to welcome Agnes’s presence and seeks to understand the truth of her involvement in Natan’s murder. While Agnes and Margret were fully developed as characters, I found the others to be somewhat superficial, particularly Agnes’s “accomplices” and Margret’s daughters.
I wasn’t bothered by the changes in POV, especially since Agnes’s narrative was so emotionally heavy. I also found Kent’s placement of historical records before each chapter to be very effective in providing the historical context by keeping me grounded in the actual events that led up to Agnes’s execution. The pacing was slow and dragging at times, but appropriate, for it mirrored what Agnes likely felt in her final days: the torment of waiting. The pace quickened in the last few chapters and led up to what I thought was an extremely powerful ending that rang with finality.
Bottom line: Burial Rites is an impressive debut novel from a promising new author. Kudos, Kent.