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Book Review: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

This is an extraordinary book that, for reasons I understand, has had a slightly mixed (but mostly very positive) reception.

An historical novel set in Burial RitesIceland during the early 1800s, it’s based on the true story of the last days of convicted murderer, Agnes Magnúsdóttir, and the times she spends interred with the family of an official, Jon Jonsson, awaiting her execution.

Arriving at the farm one day against the wishes of  Jonsson and his wife, Margaret, and their two daughters, Agnes presents as a threat to the fairly closed and private family and the community of which they’re a part. Because of the brutality of the murder she’s accused of committing (two men bludgeoned and stabbed to death in a remote farmhouse), Agnes has been judged not only guilty but also monstrous and not fit to join civilisation before she even enters the house of her new captors.

However, Agnes is not what anyone expected – not the official’s wife, her daughters, or the assistant priest, Totti, who Agnes has requested tend to her spiritual needs in her last months.

As the days pass and autumn unfolds into winter, shared duties and the close confines of the living arrangements within the Jonsson home means that the cool and suspicious distance between prisoner and family/workers cannot be maintained. Facades crumble, assumptions about people are challenged and, most importantly, Agnes gets to tell her version of the events leading up to the murder.

Burial Rites is a powerful narrative that nonetheless gently captures and captivates the reader. The beautiful, haunting prose with its vivid descriptions of the stark but stunning landscape and weather is juxtaposed against the always awful reality of both Agnes’ approaching death and the murders that underpin the present situation. Characters are gorgeously drawn, fiction and fact interwoven through the insertion of letters, quotes from Icelandic sagas and accounts from those actually involved, melding into a story that is so affecting and yet laden with meaning as well.

I found the book impossible to put down. It was slow in parts – especially at the beginning where each member of the Jonsson family is presented and Agnes is introduced “offstage”. The peace and ordinariness that marks the Jonsson’s lives is soon to be shattered and I loved the gentle build to this point, the setting up of anxiety, tension and righteousness as well. We first “see” Agnes through the Jonssons’ eyes, having had our perceptions coloured by theirs. It’s a clever strategy and the way Kent has Agnes defy these is subtle and heart-wrenching. It makes the inevitability that the book finally tumbles towards all the more searing and difficult to contemplate let alone finally accept.

I thought this book was a masterpiece and have found Kent, in the interviews she’s given over the novel’s success, to be modest and fascinating as she explains why she wrote the book and discusses its reception.

A superb, challenging and evocative book that lives in your head and heart long after you put it down.

 

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