Review: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

It is thanks to the Women’s Prize for Fiction that I have read Burial Rites by Hannah Kent. Wanting to make my way through the awards’s shortlist (before attempting the long list) I began with Kent, author of a book I wasn’t sure I would enjoy. Unsurprisingly (considering this almost always happens when I think I won’t like something) I read Burial Rites within a day, it is by far one of the best début fiction I have encountered.

Burial Rites by Hannah KentSet 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.” Synopsis from GoodReads.

Burial Rites is a fictional account of the last public execution in Iceland. Two people are sentenced to death for a brutal murder. As there are no prisons in Iceland one of the two charged, Agnes, must stay at a farmstead in the village in which she grew up. No one believes her to be innocent, the only person “compelled to understand her” is Tóti, a young assistant reverend.

I’ve seen a plethora of reviews praising Kent’s novel, rightly garnered praise at that. I know nothing of Iceland, let alone Iceland in the 1800s, but that knowledge is so far from necessary. (Although, I think a bit of post novel reading research would be interesting). Burial Rites is a character driven masterpiece.

Kent meticulously researched her topic, filling in the gaps between the information to hand. The story is factually based, Agnes the criminal resided with the Jónsdóttir family. Kent fleshed out existing accounts with prose worthy of her accolades. An Australian, you would think she were Icelandic the way she describes this northern landscape.

The description of the farmstead in which the Jónsdóttir’s resided was a surprising poverty. There is no glass in the windows, but dried sheep’s bladder stretched across as acting pane. The wood that should be in place as walls was sold, and the insulating earth fell from the opening this now provided. Jón Jónsson needed to accept Agnes into his home as he was Officer for his district, he had a responsibility he would be forced to obey. However, financially he could not refuse.

Once I had begun it was impossible to stop reading Burial Rites. It was necessary to know Agnes through and through, to come to see her gaoler family care for her. It always interests me how one stranger, one different person, can change the people around them. Either bring out their nasty side in the case of Lauga, or give a sense of identity in the case of Steina – the two Jónsdóttir daughters.

There was only one aspect of the story I felt I missed out on, and that was that I did not know what happened to the rest of the characters. Did Margrét live, did the girls marry, what happened to the young reverend. I would have liked to have known. However, I posses an imagination, I can fill in these gaps if I wish.

Although I have see many of the reviews my fellow bloggers have written on this book I did not read them thoroughly. Perhaps then under the impression that I may well come to it read this book. Now I can revisit them to see how our experience compared.

This is the first of the shortlist I have read; two down, four to go.

10 thoughts on “Review: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

    1. I don’t think I’ve encountered anyone who disliked it. Completely agree with you about the beginning. The stark realism of it had me gripped throughout.

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  1. Burial Rites has been on my radar, but I’ve been resisting, as I always do historical fiction. I have this kneejerk opposition to historical fiction that doesn’t make any particular sense given how many historical fiction books I’m very very fond of.

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    1. I am the same about historical, it took me forgetting this was set in 1800s Iceland to read it. Do give it a go though, the historical stuff doesn’t get in the way of the plot – if that makes sense.

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  2. I felt the same as you about ‘Burial Rites’ at first, I wasn’t sure I would enjoy it as it didn’t sound like my sort of thing. However, I bought it when I heard that it was shortlisted and mistakenly started to read the first few pages on the bus. I was hooked from the opening line, though I didn’t want to pick it up again until I had finished ‘Americanah’.

    I absolutely loved the novel – from the writing, which was both stark, yet poetical, reflecting the harsh Icelandic landscape, and the characterisation of Agnes, which was stunning. I will be writing my review soon, did you read the essay at the back of the book about Kent’s experience of writing ‘Burial Rites’, that gave a bit of the backstory of the execution, though, like you, I didn’t have much knowledge of the events before reading the story.

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    1. I picked up Burial Rites after beginning Americanah as well, but I was only a chapter in. Americanah and Burial Rites are two very different beasts and I think message wise I lean towards preferring the former, but I found it easier to read the latter.

      I began to read the bit at the back, but didn’t finish it, I’ll have to go back and do so.

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