Book review: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

I don’t think I have ever read a book set in Iceland before, but this one was a great introduction! It is based on the true story of Agnes Magnusdottir, the last woman to be executed in the country in the 1820s for the murder of two men.
ritesBut before Agnes is to meet her fate, she is sent to stay with the Jonsson family, who naturally treat her with great suspicion. Sisters Steina and Lauga are intrigued and fearful respectively, while their mother Margret simply takes advantage of having an extra pair of hands around the house. Agnes is also visited frequently by a young priest, Toti, who tries to get her to come to terms with what she has done and seek absolution before she dies.

The Icelandic setting of the novel is fascinating – you can feel the chill of the land and smell the animals and the landscape where the families live. There are lots of interesting details about how families lived at the time, such as the use of fish skin to cover windows and turf on the walls and ceilings. Kent sets the scene beautifully and embellishes it with lots of lovely details.

Of course it is Agnes’s story that is central to this novel, and the narrative switches from first to third person throughout the book. This could be irritating or confusing, but instead it works well and isn’t distracting as the story focuses on Agnes anyway. I also enjoyed the meetings with the priest, which enabled us to find out more about Agnes’s difficult past, as well as more about her character – she isn’t painted as a perfect heroine and is not without her flaws, but she certainly has not had an easy life.

But what I found most intriguing about the book is the way Agnes is treated by Margret and the rest of the Jonsson family. The subject of much gossip from the neighbours, Margret is often found defending Agnes and we can see through these exchanges how her feelings towards Agnes soften as the story progresses.  I would actually have preferred more about the change in the family’s feelings towards the condemned woman, and for me this wasn’t developed quite enough.

But overall I found this a lovely and fascinating read, and it was best read in large chunks as you had to really get into the setting of the book to fully appreciate it. I felt that a lot of research went into this book and it was an amazing achievement to write a novel like this. I look forward to reading more from Hannah Kent.

My rating: 8 out of 10

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3 comments

  1. So glad you enjoyed this one – it was one of my favourite books of last year. I loved the way she used language and, as you say, her descriptions of the environment and way of life were brilliant – so complete, but without ever getting in the way of the story.

    Liked by 1 person

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