Book review: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Hannah Kent’s extraordinary debut novel takes place in the harsh and extreme landscape of Iceland in the years 1829-1830.  Agnes Magnusdottir was the last person ever executed in Iceland, for her part in the brutal slaying of two men.  What actually happened on that night will forever remain a mystery, however Hannah Kent has obsessively researched public records surrounding the macabre tale and woven it into a dark and heartbreaking re-imagining of the final 12 months in the life of the prisoner.

Taken into the home of a local minor councilman due to a lack of official prisons in Iceland, Agnes gradually integrates herself into the daily lives of the suspicious and unwilling host family, and haltingly unfolds the story of her life and experience with the deceased men to the young and newly ordained local priest who is charged with leading her to God and remorse in the period up to her beheading.

The constant tension in the story stems both from the slowly released detail regarding the part that Agnes played on the night of the murders, and also from the gradual thawing of members of the family’s hearts towards her as her pitiful tale unfolds.  The unforgiving Icelandic climate and its effects on daily life play as important a role as any of the characters in forging the tone of the book.

Kent’s painstaking research into peasant life of the times proves almost as fascinating as the story itself, and the basic themes of love sought and constantly denied will leave more than one reader in tears throughout.

This is a page turner.  I read it in one day, and it is definitely one that I would revisit.  For an experienced writer, it would be an excellent effort.  As a debut novel, it stuns.  Highly recommended for the Christmas reading list.

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