Charged with the brutal murder of two men, Agnes Magnusdóttir has been removed to her homeland’s farthest reaches, to an isolated farm in northern Iceland, to await execution.
Horrified at the prospect of housing a convicted murderer, the family on the farm at first avoids Agnes. Only Tóti, a priest Agnes has chosen to be her spiritual guardian, seeks to understand her. As the winter months pass and Agnes’s death looms closer, the farmer’s wife and daughters learn there is another side to the sensational tale they’ve heard–but will their new knowledge be enough to save Agnes?
Hannah Kent makes real the saga of a doomed young woman who in the early nineteenth century became the last person to be publicly beheaded in Iceland. Rich with lyricism and startling in its revelations, Burial Rites evokes a dramatic existence in a distant time and place as it poses a heartbreaking question: How can one woman hope to endure when her life depends on the stories told by others?
I first discovered Burial Rites because of Ely from Tea & Titles, way back in 2015 (see her original review that I found). I was enchanted by the book cover and the summary. It seemed like it would be a dark but beautiful read. Over the years, I’d also see it pop up every now and then from people who I’m friends with on Goodreads.
My initial thoughts were that I’d save it for the right mood. I wouldn’t read it during a read-a-thon or on a holiday. I felt that it was the kind of book that you curl up with a calm, rainy day with several hours on hand.
I finally decided to pick it up at the end of March 2018 because I had been on a bit of crime streak with Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson and then House Rules by Jodi Picoult. Both of these books were newer acquisitions so I felt it would be right to finally grab a book that’s been on my shelves a bit longer…
Burial Rites is a historical fiction novel that brings to life 19th century north Icelandic culture, from the unique homes (badstofas), the mundanity of servant life, the otherworldly seeming landscape to the Icelandic religiosity, superstition, and judicial system. Moreover, it provides a stark portrait of life for women during this time period.
This novel is not the kind of book I would ordinarily pick up. When I was reading it, I went back and forth between total engrossment in Agnes’ story and disorientation when the book changed perspectives or included a historical document or letter that provided context for what was happening while Agnes was living her last days.
I loved the protagonist. I admired the strength that Agnes showed, even while suffering from social notions of how a woman of her station should behave. It was frustrating to hear so many characters say that she wanted for too much. Even though I knew how her story would end I wanted to root for her as she planned better future than just a life as a simple servant. She was a smart and good worker and it just does not feel like it should have been too much to ask to be able to save enough money so that she could afford to marry and be mistress of her own home.
As she opens up in her last few months to tell the story of her life and what led up to the crime for which she is to be executed, we see that her life was not fair and her biggest mistake was simply loving a man who did not love her back.
If you are interested in how to weave a story based on a real life story or events, I highly recommend checking out this book and reverse engineering it to see how Kent crafted it. Burial Rites was heavily informed by Kent’s research that helped bring this story and the characters to life. She used first-hand historical records to piece together her idea of Agnes, a woman who was Kent portrays as smart and independent woman who was misunderstood in her patriarchal society.
The thing I will most remember about this novel is beautiful and seamless transitions between the present-day narrative and Agnes’ memories. Reading quickly, many parts of the story felt like a fever dream. One moment Agnes will be going about life at Kornsá, the next she’ll be transported to a memory of her previous life, and just as quickly she is snapped back to reality.
Despite how removed the characters are from our time and place, they feel so vibrantly real. I feel that in most books characters don’t really change, they may react and learn from mistakes, but the subtle ways in which people can improve themselves, or disintegrate, is rarely charted. Kent portrays complex people and shows how redeeming or damning the third party perception contributes to how people are remembered.
I’m glad to have finally read this book. I feel like this was a good time to read it, although maybe it could better classified as a winter read for so many of the books critical moments are mirrored by the harsh, inescapable landscape.
From a writer’s perspective, this book is ripe for study of how to tell a story that is about a character…telling a story. As Agnes gives her account of her life, we see the decision-making behind what she includes for the sake of her audience and what she withholds because recounting it will be too painful or not do her memories justice.
Have you read Burial Rites? If so, what’d you think?!