Burial Rites

By: Hannah Kent

Charged with the brutal murder of two men, Agnes Magnúsdóttir has been removed to her homeland’s farthest reaches, to an isolated farm in northern Iceland, to await execution.

Horrified at the prospect of housing a convicted murderer, the family on the farm avoids Agnes. Only Tóti, a priest Agnes has chosen to be her spiritual guardian, seeks to understand her. As the winter months pass and Agnes’s death looms closer, the farmer’s wife and daughters learn there is another side to the sensational tale they’ve heard. One that will change their opinion of her forever.

This novel is based on the true story of Agnes who became the last person to be publicly beheaded in Iceland in the early nineteenth century.

Burial Rites offered a quiet sort of suspense with a closed group of characters. Our core cast is Agnes, the family she stays with, her priest, and the politician who passed her conviction. I appreciated that we know from the beginning that Agnes is going to die since it robs the author of giving the story a shallow and happy ending. There was no Ex Machina and that gave the story a more somber and serious tone. The greatest anticipation for me was in learning how she came to be in her present situation and discovering if she was in fact guilty of the murders. If she was, what was her motivation?

The story is atmospheric where the reader can feel the heat of the summer and the deadly cold of the winter. The passage of time was purposeful and tense because neither Agnes nor the reader knows exactly when she will be killed. Each day that passes is on borrowed time. The way that Kent depicts farm life also felt real; some moments were quite visceral. Life for these characters was ugly and hard. Animals get slaughtered and processed for their skin and meat, and some people fall ill due to poor living conditions. All that hardship gave the story considerable vibrancy despite the rather morbid content.

Perhaps the most unique part of this story is that it flips back and forth between the first person (Agnes) and the third person (everyone else). This split is often denoted with just a faint line from one passage to the next rather than by chapter, and I cannot think of another story that does this quite the same way. It’s also punctuated with letters between the characters involved either in Agnus’s spiritual counsel or the politicians responsible for her death sentence.

What really kept me reading was the need to know whether Agnes killed Natan. We learn about her piece by piece through some anecdotes that only the reader knows and others that she conveys to specific characters. Her story is tragic from birth to death, and I found her to be quite sympathetic though not always likable. She had a lot of great qualities but made some bad decisions that led her to the chopping block. Some decisions were forced upon her and that is where her life felt unfair and it’s disturbing how few rights the women in this time had. Burial Rites is well-written and quite engaging, but I don’t think it’s for everyone. If you like historical fiction, Icelandic culture, or are fascinated by murder trials in the 1800s, this story might be for you.

If this story sounds interesting, I encourage you to pick it up but it’s not something I would push everyone to read.

Overall rating: 4

P.S. Thank goodness that Kent included a pronunciation guide in the beginning because I knew nothing of the Icelandic alphabet before this book. My midwestern drawl had some struggles.

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