Review: ‘Burial Rites’ (Hannah Kent)

Strong prose, vivid characters
Strong prose, vivid characters
The Stats
Book: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent
Published: Picador, 2013
Genre: Historical Fiction

Of interest: Winner, 2011 Writing Australia Prize for Best Unpublished Manuscript | Shortlisted, 2014 Indies Fiction Award, 2014 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards, 2013 Guardian First Book Award, 2013 Nib Award for Literature | Longlisted, 2014 Stella Prize

The Plot
Burial Rites fictionalises the true story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last woman to be executed in Iceland. It is 1829 and Agnes has been convicted for her part in a brutal double murder in the icy northern region of the country. A dead woman walking, Agnes is sent to the farm of District Officer Jón Jónsson to await her death sentence.

As the weeks drift by, Agnes confides in the young Assistant Reverend, Tóti, while Jón and his family struggle with having a murderess in their midst. And as Agnes tells her story, her hosts are forced to ask themselves whether Agnes is everything she seems…

My Verdict
Really enjoyed this book, very strong prose and a vivid character portrayal.

I found this a skilled, beautiful, striking book. The fact that it is also a debut novel, and that Kent was only 28 when it was published, made it all the more impressive for me.

The tone is strong and sure, the characters are compelling and the facts are meticulously researched yet naturally woven into the narrative. It certainly doesn’t read like the work of (to quote Kent) an “apprentice” writer.

It is not a ‘warm’ book. Even the likeable characters seem to keep their distance. This adds to the text’s ambience, which is (for the most part) Iceland at its very iciest. The cold is artfully rendered and powerfully felt; a character in its own right. So many things turn on the unforgiving climate, and despite reading it in summer, there were times I felt the cold penetrate my bones.

Particularly skilled is the way Kent draws out Agnes’ tale. Much of the story is presented via her conversations with Tóti and others, during which she recounts the events of her past. The technique – not flashback exactly, but rather, recollection – runs the risk of leaving the action too far in the past, losing its immediacy and vividness, but Kent manages to avoid this. In fact, these passages contain some of the richest and most evocative scenes in the book.

I also loved the way Kent played with the notions of truth and fiction in the book. Agnes has given evidence – the “truth”, she says – in court, and been condemned. How can she contend with what people say about her? In so asking, the novel poses a greater question: are any of us anything more than the views other people form about us? The stories other people tell?

A great read – and perhaps even more appropriate now winter is on the way! Definitely boil the kettle first, though. You’ll want a nice hot mug of tea to go with it!


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