Book Review: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

burial-ritesWhat’s it about?

Northern Iceland, 1829.

Agnes Magnúsdóttir is condemned to death for her part in the brutal murder of her lover.

A woman condemned to death for murdering her lover.

A family forced to take her in.

A priest tasked with absolving her.

But all is not as it seems, and time is running out; winter is coming, and with it the execution date.

Only she can know the truth. This is Agne’s story.

My thoughts

This was our book club choice for April and following our meeting was concluded to be a resounding success and definitely a keeper! Whatever I say isn’t going to be sufficient, really, you should just read it!

After an off-putting start this has turned out to be one of my favourite reads of this year so far. I say off-putting start because the first couple of pages were notes on Icelandic names, pronunciations and a map. My immediate thoughts were I’m going to have to be flipping back and forth to understand what I’m reading. However, I was wrong. Yes, there’s a lot of Icelandic words but I tended to skim over the them as I couldn’t get my head around the pronunciations in my mind but this didn’t detract from the story.

So, yes, this is Agnes’ story, a convicted murderess sent to lodge with a family until the day of her execution. Told initially to her priest and later to her mistress we learn of what actually happened through Agnes’ recollections. The host family initially are obviously not very welcoming, thinking they will be murdered in their beds but over the period of Agnes’ confinement they mellow and are then not so dismissive of Agnes when they’ve  heard her side of the story rather than the local gossip!

This is an excellently written novel: the details of hardship and living conditions, the relationship between Agnes and Toti was extremely poignant, they both seemed to need each other for their various reasons and the Icelandic setting could quite as easily have been Dartmoor or the Peak District with the barren and harsh surroundings.

The official letters at the beginning of the chapters detailing the events to follow; for example the commissioning of the axe, how the execution would be planned and carried out etc gave us insight into the legal proceedings and how Agnes was to be made an example of.

I really enjoy books that have taken true stories and interpreted their own endings such as The Black Dahlia and Frog Music, although this novels ending isn’t fiction the overall novel is still an effortless combination between fact and fiction that the reader is unaware of where one ends and the other begins.

I do love the embossed velvety feel of the cover and with the paperback came an old fashioned sort of font which gave it a little more of an historical feel.

The ending was never going to be a happy one which we know that from the outset but I was still hoping that it would end differently, that there would be that last minute reprieve. It really was a very moving ending although I did feel that it came a little quick, almost hurried but then where could it go…

Overall, this is an outstanding debut novel with an incredible amount of research which is evident throughout – I do wonder if it’s harder to write novels that are based on true events or all just pure fiction?

Buy the book Paperback | Kindle

Connect with the author Hannah Kent

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