Title: Burial Rites
Author: Hannah Kent
Release Date: September 10, 2013
Publisher: Little, Brown and Co
Genre: Historical Mystery, Literary Fition
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
The year is 1829, and Agnes Magnusdottir is awaiting execution for her role in a brutal murder. But Iceland has no prisons, so she’s sent to a farm to spend her final days with a local family, who are less than thrilled to be burdened with a murderess. As the days drag on and Agnes’s execution draws closer, both the family and a local priest begin to wonder just what Agnes actually did and whether she is indeed guilty of murder.
Burial Rites is a gorgeously written literary mystery that has an intriguing main character and brings Iceland to life for the reader.
Burial Rites is a novel based on actual historical events; Agnes Magnusdottir was the last person to be executed in Iceland. It’s with that heavy knowledge that the reader begins this book. There will be no physical salvation for Agnes; her sentence will not be commuted at the last minute. The reader knows, at least in general, how the novel will end; therefore, Hannah Kent has a difficult job in making the ride, rather than the destination, the main focal point of the novel. And happily, she does that beautifully.
Agnes Magnusdottir is at the center of Burial Rites, and she is certainly a fascinating woman. Readers will immediately be intrigued by her, as she’s so hard to read. She holds the reader at arm’s length, yet it’s only the reader who receives her full confession. It’s clear that establishing that trust with the reader is difficult for Agnes; she has been mistreated for so long by so many people that it’s admirable she has that left in her. Learning her story and understanding her role in the events that led to her conviction is the driving force of the novel; is Agnes guilty? Is she the monster that everyone around her has judged her to be?
The novel takes place in Iceland, and Hannah Kent describes the landscape and setting in vivid detail. In many ways, Iceland is another main character in Burial Rites; this story could not have taken place anywhere but in a cold, desolate Icelandic winter. Readers will be able to close their eyes and picture Kent’s descriptions. Having recently returned from this beautiful country, this was a real treat, to feel it coming to life around me while reading this book.
I can’t review Burial Rites without talking about the writing style because it’s so breathtaking. Kent writes with an artist’s hand, crafting her story meticulously. But what’s more, her prose is simply gorgeous. The writing in this novel softens the blunt, sharp edges of the story and makes it absolutely enjoyable to read. This is a novel that has so many different facets, and each is executed remarkably well. It all adds up to a book that is absolutely worth reading and will leave you thinking about its main character for days.