Sunday, May 11, 2014

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Burial Rites
by Hannah Kent
4 stars - a tad depressing, but beautiful as well

ALR Green - no animal characters, brief description of annual sheep slaughter, but not grisly

Some time ago, a friend suggested the novel Burial Rites for my reading list. It wasn't until I went to write this review that I realized there are several books with that title, so I hope I read the right one.

Burial Rites is a fictionalized account of the final months of Agnes Magnusdottir, the last person to be executed in Iceland.

Her crime? Participating in the murder of Natan Ketilsson and Petur Illugastadir. 

Having no place to house Agnes as she awaits her execution, it is decided that she will board with a family in Kornsa, a remote village in northern Iceland. The story follows her months working as a servant on a farm, her relationship with the family providing her lodging, and the story of how she came to be a convicted murderess.

It doesn't take long to get completely drawn in to the tale. Ms. Kent paints a deep and evocative portrait of both Iceland and the characters. Her prose is so gloriously crafted that without prolonged detail or explanation, the reader can feel the emotions, see the landscape, almost smell the farm and countryside. 

Not only is this the story of Agnes, but also of those who come in contact with her. There is the young priest, Toti, who is chosen to "save her soul" prior to execution. Uncertain why he has been given this task and still struggling with his own faith, Toti chooses to let Agnes tell her story rather than spend his time with her preaching the gospel and shaking the fist of God in her face. He is troubled by the presentation of a human being, rather than a monster.

So, too, the family in Kornsa have mixed reactions. Father, mother, and two sisters, all seeing Agnes a bit differently and forever changed from the experience.

I was a bit confounded by the Icelandic names early on and found the best course of action to keep characters straight was to provide my own, garbled version of pronunciation (rather than use the helpful guide provided by the author). Similarly, there is a map of the region available for reference to aid readers like me who are geographically challenged.

From a weather perspective, this is not a resounding endorsement of Iceland as a travel destination. Nasty.

While I highly recommend this book, I offer caution as to choosing your moment. It is overwhelmingly depressing and not to be taken on when you are struggling with grief of your own.

Finally, I feel the need to comment on the fact that the author, Hannah Kent, was born in 1985. Seriously? It took me a while to realize that 1985 was long enough ago that people born then are actual grown-ups now. Sigh. 


  1. My 1985 vintage son is 28. I don't know when he got so old, since I'm not that old.

    This sounds like a great 6 months to a year, when my life is back fully on an even keel. I watched a movie set in Iceland once, and it does not look like a hospitable place. And the name pronunciations are terrible!

  2. I enjoyed it too. A book I couldn't put down and would read again.
    I agree with Marjie too. Our eldest daughter was born in 1985. WTH? Where did that time go.
    No worries, and love, Carol

  3. hello mango momma its dennis the vizsla dog hay wow those peepul born in 1985 wood be over two hunnerd yeerz old in dog yeerz!!! time sertinly duz fly!!! ok bye