Book Review: Burial Rites

October 10, 2013 3.5 stars, book review, Hashtags, historical fiction, Iceland, Little Brown 4

Written by:  Hannah Kent

Published by: Little Brown September 2013

Length: 336 pages

Source: Publisher

Summary from Hannah Kent’s website:

In northern Iceland, 1829, Agnes Magnúsdóttir is condemned to death for her part in the brutal murder of two men. Agnes is sent to wait out the time leading to her execution on the farm of District Officer Jón Jónsson, his wife and their two daughters. Horrified to have a convicted murderess in their midst, the family avoids speaking with Agnes.
Only Tóti, the young assistant reverend appointed as Agnes’s spiritual guardian, is compelled to try to understand her, as he attempts to salvage her soul.
As the summer months fall away to winter and the hardships of rural life force the household to work side by side, Agnes’s ill-fated tale of longing and betrayal begins to emerge. And as the days to her execution draw closer, the question burns: did she or didn’t she?
Based on a true story, Burial Rites is a deeply moving novel about personal freedom: who we are seen to be versus who we believe ourselves to be, and the ways in which we will risk everything for love.
In beautiful, cut-glass prose, Hannah Kent portrays Iceland’s formidable landscape, where every day is a battle for survival, and asks, how can one woman hope to endure when her life depends upon the stories told by others?

My thoughts:
I began reading  Burial Rites with my online bookish friends, the Hashtags, planned twitter chats ensued and at first many agreed, a slow start.  The other problem was the language, I found myself looking up several Icelandic or Nordic words, which helped and after those first 50 pages I was settled in more.

I was struck with how stark and bitter the life of these people was.  Agnes’s time in an actual prison was more brutal than I had imagined, but her crime was considered so heinous that there was no sympathy for her.  She was seen as a sullied woman, and while there were two others also found guilty of the murders she got the least sympathy.

The living conditions of the Jonsson family were not much nicer than she had experienced most of her life. The communal sleeping quarters surprised me.  The family, servants and yes Agnes herself slept in one room. She wasn’t chained up or kept separate. She was expected to work during her stay.

Her visits with Toti, the young reverend began as simple and standoffish, but Agnes began to open up to him and as I read of her history and her life in her own words, I began to see her in a new light.
Hannah Kent began this work long ago, as an exchange student in Iceland she learned of Agnes’ story.  Her research and imagination lead to this debut historical fiction novel.

I admit I didn’t love this book, but I didn’t want to put it down either, I was fascinated by the story Kent had woven, the harsh life Agnes had lived.  I’ve given this book a 3.5 out of 5 stars.  I liked it.  Other bloggers listened to this book on audio and they said it was well done and helped them with the names and places.  I didn’t worry so much about the pronunciations, and just went with it.  If you enjoy historical fiction I think you will enjoy this book.  The imagery created by Kent of the landscape and life in 1800’s Iceland is fantastic.

4 Responses to “Book Review: Burial Rites”

  1. Literary Feline

    I used to have a pen pal in Iceland, and ever since I’ve had an interest in the country. So this is one I might be willing to try, even with its flaws.

  2. Elizabeth

    I really liked this book. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    BTW, I am trying to “friend” you on Goodreads. It asks how many children you have, and I only see three in the photo, but it says it is the wrong answer. 🙂

    Help please. 🙂

    Elizabeth
    Silver’s Reviews
    My Blog

  3. crimeworm

    I must get back to this – I did start it, but it was abandoned in favour of more exciting reads. Will deffo pick it up again, when the TBR decreases!

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