by Hannah Kent
Little, Brown; Sept. 10, 2013
Hardcover; 336 pages
Source: Provided by publisher for review
In 1828, Agnes Magnusdottir was executed for her role in the murders of two men. She was the last person to receive capital punishment in Iceland, and her character sparks controversy to this day. Was she “an inhumane witch, stirring up murder,” as some accounts claim, or was she simply a victim of circumstance?
Burial Rites reimagines the months leading up to Agnes’ death. Because Iceland doesn’t have its own jails at the time, she is sent to live with the family of a district officer to await her execution. Jon’s wife and daughters are leery of having a convicted murderess in the house, and everyone fearfully avoids her at first. Her only confessor is Toti, the inexperienced priest she has chosen to be her spiritual guardian. Gradually, she begins to share her version of her story, revealing details about her childhood, relationships, and the circumstances surrounding the murders.
This is possibly the best novel I have read this year, and it is an astonishing debut. The storytelling alternates between Agnes’ internal narration and the broader perspectives of those around her. The sections narrated by Agnes are absolutely stunning. Kent’s writing is gorgeous, evocative, and poetic. There were many passages that I read over and over, even speaking them out loud to feel the beauty of the words forming in my mouth and hear their lyricism out loud.
“At Hvammur, during the trail, they plucked at my words like birds. Dreadful birds, dressed in red with breasts of silver buttons, and cocked heads and sharp mouths, looking for guilt like berries on a bush. They did not let me say what happened in my own way, but took my memories of Illugastadir, of Natan, and wrought them into something sinister; they wrestled my statement of that night and made me seem malevolent. Everything I said was taken from me and altered until the story wasn’t my own.”
Kent excels at writing Agnes as a compelling, complex character. In a rural community where everyone has heard the stories and has their own conceptions of her guilt, it was fascinating to learn her perspective. I loved Kent’s choice to cast her as morally ambiguous; she’s not a saint, but does she really deserve her sentence?
Burial Rites is a hauntingly beautiful portrayal of Agnes’ final days. This novel has a great sense of place, and Kent’s descriptions of the harsh Icelandic landscape fit perfectly with the bleak situation in which Agnes finds herself.
My one complaint about this novel is the way it ended; there were some incredibly moving passages near the end, but a perspective change in the last few pages pages made it less powerful. The story loses some of the tension built in the previous pages, and I thought the ending would have had more impact if it weren’t for the switch.
I really loved this book. The setting, the writing, the ambiguity surrounding the central character, the slow building of stories, and Kent’s choice to intersperse the narrative with translated documents from the time are all wonderful. Even though I knew how it would end, the power and beauty of Kent’s heartrending writing had me reaching for the tissues. I highly recommend this book!
I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.