Book Review: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

burial rites

Rating: 4.5 / 5

Agnes Magnusdottir is staying with a local family in Iceland while awaiting her execution.  She and Fridrik Sigurosson have been convicted of murdering two men, her former employer and his friend.  It is Iceland in the late 1820s, and there are no prisons, so one local government official has been tasked with holding her custody on his farm until her execution date.  One of the few rights Agnes has as a prisoner is access to a priest, and she requests Toti.  As Agnes settles into her new role with the Jonsson family and is visited by the priest, she recounts to them part of her story, of how she was she brought up and the events that transpired that will lead to her imminent death.

Burial Rites is based on the true story of Agnes Magnusdottir, the last person executed in Iceland.  As this is based on true events, it is no surprise that Agnes’s conviction was not appealed, and the reader ultimately knows her fate before the first page is turned.  Knowing that, though, did not make Burial Rites any less interesting.  The events surrounding the murders are murky, but Agnes has been convicted, and therefore I started the novel thinking Agnes was a criminal with questionable morals, but quickly doubted that impression; it is not that she is very likable, but her thoughts and attitude are not that of a murderer.  She is aloof and demure, and it takes time for her to tell her side of the story.

Most chapters begin with artifacts from the archives, such as lists of materials needed to build the execution platform and tool, or letters regarding Agnes.  Part of Agnes’s story is recounted when she speaks with the priest or the family she is being housed at, and the other half of the story is Agnes narrating directly to the reader.  As Burial Rites progress, my impression of Agnes changed; it made me frustrated and angry to see how much of her fate was tied to her pedigree, or, more accurately, her lack of pedigree.  Since she was born out of wedlock, she has been shunned and marginalized.  Her actions, when not in conformity with society, are blamed on her illegitimacy.

Burial Rites is an interesting read. Agnes’s fate has been sealed, so the end is no surprise.  However, it is a mistake to think that knowing Agnes’s fate makes Burial Rites predictable. Days after finishing it I’m still thinking about Agnes and her plight, and I can’t wait to read Kent’s next work.

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