Review: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Book Reviews

“They will see the whore, the madwoman, the murderess, the female dripping blood into the grass and laughing with her mouth choked with dirt. They will say “Agnes” and see the spider, the witch caught in the webbing of her own fateful weaving. They might see the lamb circled by ravens, bleating for a lost mother. But they will not see me. I will not be there.”

Burial Rites Hannah Kent Book coverInspired by a true story, Burial Rites is a haunting account of the the last months of the life of Agnes Magnusdottir, the last woman to be executed in Iceland. Accused of murder of her former master and lover Natan Ketilsson, Agnes is forced to live with the family of a local farmer and spend her final weeks before the execution working as their servant. At the time, real prisons simply did not exist on the island.

In the eyes of everyone Anges is a monster, a corrupted spawn of the devil that has scandalized the rural Icelandic community by her evil deeds. Whore, manipulator, conspirator… After all, rumor has it it was her, the one that made her fellow servant Sigga open the door to Fridrik. She was the one to slit Natan’s throat and Natan was the district “doctor”, well-liked, well-known… Her guilt is out of the question.

“To know what a person has done, and to know who a person is, are very different things.”

Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites is an ambitious debut novel, a modern literary masterpiece telling a murder story where things are never black and white.  The author’s vivid prose paints an eerie portrait of the 1820s Iceland – cold, harsh and sometimes brutal and quite cruel. A place where Christianity and superstitions mix together, and rumors spread by others define who you are.

The novel presents three points of view, that of Agnes herself, Kornsa landlady Margaret and Reverend Toti assigned to bring Agnes to God. When Agnes arrives to the farm, her reputation precedes her. At first, Margaret and her family keep a guarded exterior, which slowly starts to melt away, as Agnes recounts her life and the events that led to the night of the murder. Burial Rites is a novel of little action, and yet, it is the psychological element of it, and the richness of character development that make it an absolute must-read.

Born out of wedlock, Agnes is abandoned by her mother at the age of six. Her foster mother dies at the very same farm Agnes awaits her execution. Wondering from one farm to the next, Agnes finally meets the man she falls in love with, Natan Ketilsson, who spirits her away to a remote farm, and yet, the happy end was never meant to be.

 Slowly, the Kornsa family and the reverend begin to see Agnes for what she really was – a woman scorned, a woman wronged. A victim.

Overall note: 5*

“The last bed, the last roof, the last floor. The last of everything brings lugs of pain, as though there will be nothing left, but smoke from fires abandoned.”


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