Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Burial Rites

‘Burial Rites’ by Hannah Kent is a novel based on the true story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir who was convicted of murder and was the last woman to be executed in Iceland in 1830 at the age of 33.  Sentenced to death along with Fridrik Sigurdsson and Sigrídur Sigga Gudmundsdóttir for killing Natan Ketilsson and his neighbour, Agnes is sent to live with District Officer Jón Jónsson, his wife Margrét and their daughters Steina and Lauga while she awaits execution.  However, it is gradually revealed that her story is more complex than the original version of events presented in court.

Kent first heard the tale of Agnes’s life and death as a teenager while on a cultural exchange trip in Iceland.  Based on her passionate reimagining of events, it is easy to see why she was so fascinated by this remarkable story.  Kent has thoroughly researched Agnes’s life but doesn’t allow the story to be swamped by her extensive archive research.  The story is tensely written with striking, often unusual imagery and it is the combination of a truly unique and original story and the desolate Icelandic landscape which make ‘Burial Rites’ so darkly atmospheric.

Although we know her fate from the outset, Kent’s creative reimagining of what happened to Agnes and how other characters react to her presence is ultimately what drives the story.  However, I did find it slightly puzzling that Kent stated in the Author’s Note that she set out to offer a more “ambiguous portrayal” of Agnes’s character. Agnes is certainly complex but I found Kent’s interpretation of events to be almost entirely sympathetic towards her.  While I enjoyed and admired many aspects of ‘Burial Rites’, I don’t think Kent fully succeeded in presenting Agnes as a vague and questionable character who the reader might have reason to be suspicious of.

Nevertheless, ‘Burial Rites’ is a confidently written novel and has been one of the most talked-about debuts of 2013. It is the perfect book to curl up with on a cold wintry day and I am sure it would be equally useful to help the reader cool down during a heatwave.  Hannah Kent is definitely one to watch in the future and I am intrigued by what she will write next.


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20 responses to “Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

  1. I liked it alot. For me, the ambiguity came from the murder itself. Did Agnes kill Natan to put him out of his misery, as she suggested, or was it because of how he had treated her? I agree though, it was a sympathetic portrait of an intriguing woman.


  2. I’ve noted this book and want to read it. After your review, I’m even more intrigued. Thanks.


  3. Your review has made me determined to push this one up the TBR so I can see if I agree with you.


  4. I have it sitting there waiting for me so I’ll take your advice and use it to help me cool down through a heatwave. I should have thought of doing that earlier in the week !


  5. This book has been on my TBR for a while now but your review has made me definitely want to read it soon!



  6. This sounds sad! But what a hook line of a premise. I liked your comment on sympathies vs ambiguities. I also love Scandi-Iceland settings for atmosphere.


  7. This seems to be a very talked about book right now and everyone seems to love it. At first I wrote it off because I don’t really like historical fiction, but enough people have said good things that I’ve been convinced to read it.


  8. I cannot WAIT to read this. A part of the world that really sets my imagination soaring as well…


  9. mushypeasonearth

    Saw a few reviews of this last year, it’s on my to-read list. Glad to hear it doesn’t disappoint.


  10. Definitely on my list to read!


  11. I think Burial Rites was probably the first book I’d ever read set in Iceland. For that alone, it was an interesting and eye opening read. But I agree with you that Agnes was never an ambiguous or shady character. As you read and get to know Agnes and how she got to this point, it all really makes sense, more or less.


  12. Burial Rites was sooooo good! Normally I hate books that are depressing and/or make me cry, but this one just blew me away. I loved the complexity with which Kent portrays her characters and the way that she explores the dynamics of village life. 🙂


  13. Going on my “to read” list and I’m checking my library right now!


  14. It is a great novel and to all of you who love it, I recommend you “Alias Grace” by Margaret Atwood.


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  16. Chris Sullivan

    I loved this novel even though, as I mentioned in my review of the novel, it borrowed heavily from Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace. This is my favourite to win the Bailey’s Prize, closely followed by ‘The Lowland’. But I am halfway through Audrey Magee’s ‘The Undertaking’ and have still to start ‘The Goldfinch’ so my opinion may change.


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