Book Review – Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

burial rites

Set against Iceland’s stark landscape, Hannah Kent brings to vivid life the story of Agnes, who, charged with the brutal murder of her former master, is sent to an isolated farm to await execution.

Horrified at the prospect of housing a convicted murderer, the family at first avoids Agnes. Only Tóti, a priest Agnes has mysteriously chosen to be her spiritual guardian, seeks to understand her. But as Agnes’s death looms, the farmer’s wife and their daughters learn there is another side to the sensational story they’ve heard.

Riveting and rich with lyricism, BURIAL RITES evokes a dramatic existence in a distant time and place, and asks the question, how can one woman hope to endure when her life depends upon the stories told by others?

This is a tough book to rate for me. It’s a typical literary fiction with a lot of qualities, so I feel like it deserves a solid 4. But based on my enjoyment alone, I wouldn’t go higher than a 3 or 3,5. The pacing is slow but consistent, by which I mean it stays the same from beginning to end. You won’t find action or twists and turns in this book, and since the story is based on a true event, you already know how it ends.

The author basically documented (and fictionalized, of course) the last year of Agnes Magnusdottir, the last person sentenced to death in Iceland, and the story takes place in the early 1800s in a really bleak setting. I’m not familiar (at all) with Islandic pronunciation of names of people and places, so it was slightly off putting. I mean, those names are complex and very foreign to either the english or the french language that I know, and when you keep stumbling onto stuff that you don’t know how to pronounce, it breaks the rythm of your reading and the flow of the story.

Anyway, as I expected, it was very atmospheric, which usually testifies of the author’s great ability with words (and this book IS very lyrical and almost poetic at times), but I don’t know that it’s such a good feat when said atmosphere is so… cold and depressing. There are many characters aside from Agnes, and none of them except one is likeable. It’s probably about the culture and the hard lifestyle of these parts in this time, but man, wasn’t everything seeming dirty and uncomfortable and unpleasant! Not a book that’ll give you a smile, for sure.

It’s also my opinion that even though it’s not a particularily long book, it could have been a good 50 pages shorter, especially towards the first half where I kept thinking how underwhelmed I was by how little was happening, but then, this kind of contemplative reflexion on such a “grand” matter (death sentence) can’t really be precipitated. Would still recommend, but only to a select few.

** I also just learned that they’re currently working on a movie adaptation for this and that Jennifer Lawrence is linked to the project. Interesting.

[GOODREADS]

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