Review: Burial Rites, by Hannah Kent
In 1829, the last ever public execution was carried out in Iceland. Agnes Magnusdottir was put to death for her part in the murder of two men on a remote farm in the north of the country.
Based on actual events, Burial Rites follows Agnes in the last months of her life as she brought to live on a farm in the same valley where she spent most of her life as a farm servant. Forced to live and work closely with the horrified farming family, Agnes begins to share her story with a local priest, who is sent to redeem her soul before she is executed.
The idea for the novel originated over a decade ago when the Australian author, then a teenager, spent a year as an exchange student in a remote Icelandic village. Driving past the site of the execution, she felt a connection with this mysterious woman, dead almost 200 years, thanks to her own homesickness and sense of isolation.
The vast, barren landscapes of the Icelandic countryside have always held a fascination for me, even more so since I visited the country for the first time earlier this year. I was intrigued by the premise of this novel and as the glowing reviews began to emerge decided I had to read it.
Burial Rites lives up to its early praise. The elegant, understated prose captures the bleakness of life in the Icelandic countryside, as the long summer days fade into a brutal winter that can quickly snatch life away from those who are unsuspecting or unprepared.
The theme of isolation is central to the novel and is paralleled in the characters. The families and servants living in the valley in which the story is set are isolated from the wider world, even a trip to the neighbouring farm can be almost impossible in bad weather. And as the family are isolated from the wider society, so Agnes is isolated from them, although she lives and works among them.
When she arrives at the farm, beaten and dehydrated, wearing the ruined dress that is her only possession, the family are afraid, imagining her as a caricature of the manipulative murderess who they have heard so many stories about. But Agnes proves herself to be a hard and capable worker, and as the family come to know her, so the boundaries between them begin to blur.
The story is primarily told from Agnes’ perspective, although Reverend Toti and farmer’s wife Margrét also tell parts of the tale, allowing the author to show the convicted woman from another person’s perspective, revealing the changes in her and her relationship with her host family as the months pass and her execution grows closer.
The book also examines issues of poverty and misogyny, as Agnes receives very different treatment to the younger and prettier Sigga, who is convicted of her part in the same murders. Abandoned as a child, Agnes has always had to fight for her place in the world, never fitting in anywhere, ironically until she comes to her final residence as a prisoner.
This is a thought-provoking, beautifully written novel that gives a voice to a figure who has been marginalised by history, imagining her as a rounded character with a poignant story of her own.
Find out more about the book:
Burial Rites on Amazon (affiliate link)
Burial Rites on Goodreads
Please note: I received an advance copy of this book as part of the Amazon Vine programme, however opinions are my own.