I received a review copy of this book from the publisher. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
Published by Little Brown and Company in 2013
Genres: Historical Fiction
Source: the publisher
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Burial Rites is a novel about Agnes Magnusdottir, the last person to be executed in Iceland. The story is set after Agnes has received her sentence and must await her execution at Kornsa, a farm that was once her childhood home. At first, the family who lives there is unsettled by her presence, and Agnes’ sole confidante is Toti, the priest who counsels her as she prepares for her death. Agnes begins to tell her story to Toti and is slowly embraced as a part of the family.
The narration in Burial Rites alternates between Agnes and Toti. Chapters are interspersed with documents, letters, and poetry fragments translated from the original Icelandic. Readers see Agnes as a sympathetic character, and yet they know that she stands accused of murder. As her relationship with Toti and the family at Korsna develop, the novel builds up to her revelation of what happened on the night of the murder.
The book can also be seen as a critique of the finality and severity of the death penalty. Agnes isn’t portrayed as a monster, even though many villagers think that she is. By getting to know her, readers are drawn out of a black and white world into a moral grey zone. We see where Agnes has come from, what forces have shaped her life, and why she is where she is today.
Generally, I avoid reading books that are horribly depressing, but this one stood out from the crowd. Even though you start the book knowing the protagonist (whom you will grow to love) will end the book by getting her head lopped off (at which point you will cry like a baby), Burial Rites sheds an interesting light on the dynamics of Icelandic village life in the late 1800s/early 1900s. It is truly an incredible novel.
Burial Rites is poignant, lyrical, and unforgettable. Hannah Kent went above and beyond in her research and writing, and this book is a remarkable labor of love. I’d highly recommend it.