Burial Rites by Hannah Kent
Reviewed by Diane K. M.
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Brrr! This wintry novel about a woman accused in the 1828 murders of two
men in northern Iceland was filled with shiver-inducing descriptions of
the harsh, yet beautiful, rural landscape. Even though I was reading
this on a warm summer day, the chilly language made me think about
reaching for a shawl.
Hannah Kent, who is from Australia, says
she became interested in the true story of Agnes Magnusdottir when she
traveled to Iceland in 2003. Agnes was the last person in the country to
be executed. She was beheaded in 1830 for her role in the murders of
Natan Ketilsson and Petur Jonsson. Kent researched the facts of the case
and has written a compelling version of what might have happened while
Agnes was awaiting her execution.
Kent's prose is lovely and so
descriptive that you feel as if you are in that remote Icelandic
village. The novel is a bit slow to start, but picks up when Agnes is
transferred to a farmer's home to await her fate, and a compassionate
reverend starts to visit her. Agnes is reticent at first, but eventually
opens up and discusses her past and her relationship with the murdered
"I remain quiet. I am determined to close myself to the
world, to tighten my heart and hold what has not yet been stolen from
me. I cannot let myself slip away. I will hold what I am inside, and
keep my hands tight around all the things I have seen and heard, and
felt. The poems composed as I washed and scythed and cooked until my
hands were raw. The sagas I know by heart. I am sinking all I have left
and going underwater. If I speak, it will be in bubbles of air. They
will not be able to keep my words for themselves. They will see the
whore, the madwoman, the murderess, the female dripping blood into the
grass and laughing with her mouth choked with dirt. They will say
'Agnes' and see the spider, the witch caught in the webbing of her own
fateful weaving. They might see the lamb circled by ravens, bleating for
a lost mother. But they will not see me. I will not be there."
overall I liked the book, one of my complaints was that Kent would
switch between third-person and Agnes' first-person perspective, and
some of the changes were so jarring and abrupt (with no visible page
break) that I sometimes had to backtrack and reread paragraphs to make
sense of what I was reading. This is Kent's first novel, and this kind
of structural messiness should have been fixed by an editor. I think the
whole story could have been efficiently told from third person, OR the
shifts between the perspectives should have been telegraphed better.
Kent does get credit for including a pronunciation guide for Icelandic
letters at the beginning of the book, which was helpful.
feels like quibbling in what was a mostly enjoyable read. I liked the
relationship between Agnes and the reverend, and how the feelings of the
farmer's family, which were at first hostile to hosting a prisoner,
slowly changed over time as Agnes proved herself a useful worker. I also
liked the glimpse into the workings of a 19th-century village and the
differences between the homes of the poor farmers and those of the
wealthy commissioner. I would recommend "Burial Rites" to fans of
historical fiction or anyone who would appreciate this "dark love
letter" to Iceland.