January Bookclub Review: Burial Rites

Thursday 30 January 2014 by

Burial Rites, Hannah Kent, Picador, BookBurial Rites by Hannah Kent

Published by Picador

In northern Iceland, 1829, Agnes Magnúsdóttir is condemned to death for her part in the brutal murder of her lover.

Agnes is sent to wait out her final months on the farm of district officer Jón Jónsson, his wife and their two daughters. Horrified to have a convicted murderer in their midst, the family avoid contact with Agnes. Only Tóti, the young assistant priest appointed Agnes’s spiritual guardian, is compelled to try to understand her. As the year progresses and the hardships of rural life force the household to work side by side, Agnes’s story begins to emerge – and with it the family’s terrible realization that all is not as they had assumed…

Based on actual events, Burial Rites is an astonishing and moving novel about the truths we claim to know and the ways in which we interpret what we’re told. In beautiful, cut-glass prose, Hannah Kent portrays Iceland’s formidable landscape, in which 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?

~*~

When I picked up Burial Rites, I chose it because of the hype I had heard around it. It featured on several podcasts I listen to, and was shortlisted for the 2013 Guardian First Book Award. Based on the true story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last woman to be executed in Iceland, Kent tells a haunting tale of truth and lies and the grey area in between.

“They said I must die. The said that I stole the breath from men, and now they must steal mine.”

With those simple opening lines, I was hooked. Whether you read historical fiction or not, this doesn’t matter. Kent weaves a tale that carries the scent and breath of Iceland within its pages. 19th Century Iceland is its own character, as it presses down on our central players in a blanket of smells and sounds and stark landscapes.

Agnes is a magnetic protagonist. No matter how much you think you should dislike her, she is mesmerising to behold. As she moulds herself in to the family life on the farm, she grows in your mind’s eye. You think of her when you’re not reading the book, you hear her voice and feel her pain. It’s a choking, cloying kind of pain – the pain of the inevitable.

And inevitable it is. I think Carole put it perfectly in her review when she describes that frustration of hope throughout the book. The knowledge of what is coming and yet the reader’s desperate fight to find hope in a bleak and unforgiving novel.

The idea that a bleak novel can be so wonderful is a little alien, but this is a poetic narration of a woman whose fate is already decided before you begin, and characters that haunt your consciousness. Even the characters that make your skin crawl (and there are a number) are somehow depthless and magical. Each section, narrated by different characters, creates a multi-faceted story, and the injection of excerpts from real documents makes it all the more entrancing. Their cold, factual narration juxtaposes against Agnes, who tells her story of love and fear and anger that feels familiar and yet so foreign.

Kent is masterful with her use of language – leaving a breadcrumb trail of pieces that keeps you reading long after you should have gone to sleep, makes you skip meals just to get to the next bit, and hold your breath with every turn of the page. It’s been a long time that such beautiful story-telling has made me cry in the way this one did. Burial Rites grabs you by the heart and doesn’t let go.

The last few pages are painful and yet you can’t move away. Agnes never escapes her fate, and as you put the book down, you share her fear, you mourn her loss, and you wish that it could have been different.

This is a book that should have reached higher acclaim than it has, and I can only hope that it will reach more readers, and they will share in Agnes’ story. She feels precious and delicate, and it is a long time before I stepped out of the Iceland of Kent’s writing.

Burial Rites is as unforgiving and sharp as it is intense and moving. This novel is one to treasure.

What did you think of Burial Rites?

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