Burial Rites – Hannah Kent

Title – Burial Rites

Author – Hannah Kent

Published – 2013

Genre – Historical / Crime fiction

This was a bit of a bonus book, as it wasn’t part of my planned reading but I managed to squeeze it in before our trip to Iceland. It is one of those titles that I had seen mentioned on Twitter and elsewhere and hadn’t really known what it was about, but when I asked for Icelandic reading suggestions Lindsay

at The Little Reader Library recommended it.

As with another Hanna that I read at the beginning of the year, this is a stunning debut and has already picked up a number of plaudits, including being shortlisted for the Guardian first book award.

Set in Iceland in 1829 the story follows Agnes Magnúsdóttir, who has been sentenced to death for her part in the brutal murder of two men, one of whom was her lover. Having already received her sentence Agnes has been held in Stóra-Borg awaiting confirmation of her execution from Denmark. Unusually the decision is taken that the executions of all concerned should be carried out in Iceland. There are no jails or suitable places for her to be held, so District Commissioner Blondal decides that she should be moved to the home of his district officer Jón Jónsson and his wife and daughters to await her execution.

The family is suitably horrified at the idea of having a murderess living under their roof, but the reality of Agnes when she arrives doesn’t really fit their picture of a killer. Much of the story concerns the daily life on the farm and the way that Agnes is treated. Agnes is a tough character, she has had a hard life, illegitimate she was abandoned by her mother and had to earn her keep from an early age. She was fostered at a number of farms and had in fact spent time living with another family on the farm at which she is subsequently held. The story gives quite an insight into the lives of Icelanders during the nineteenth century and the hardships they had to endure – not an easy place to make a living from the land.

Being Christians the authorities want to see Agnes properly prepared to meet her end (and whatever may come next) so a priest is appointed as her spiritual guardian. Agnes chooses a young man, an inexperienced priest called Toti, whom she remembers from a chance encounter. Bound to visit her and administer to her, he becomes something of a confessor and it is to him that she reluctantly relates her tale.

The story is told from multiple viewpoints and I think that even though we hear Agnes tell her own story I was left feeling that perhaps there was something that she was still holding back. The book is based on the true case of Agnes Magnúsdóttir and her co-defendants and the interspersed between chapters are translations of primary source documents.

I’m sure that some people won’t like the writing style, the language evokes the historical period but remains easy to read and Kent’s writing is often poetic.

“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.”

I don’t always enjoy historical fiction that involves real figures, but I found this moving, intriguing and hard to put down.

One further thing I should add is that the hardback is also a beautiful looking book. Many thanks to Picador for my review copy.

You can see another point of view over at Savidge Reads.

1star1star1star1star1star

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6 comments

  1. I loved this book – one of the best of the year. It was the language and the way she wove the Icelandic culture through it – always showing and never telling. Glad to hear you enjoyed it too. 🙂

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