Agnes Magnusdottir was the last person to be executed in Iceland, for her role in the murder of two men in March 1828. In Burial Rites, Hannah Kent tells the story of Agnes from her conviction to her death. As Iceland had no prisons at the time, Agnes is sent to live and work with a rural family in the North of Iceland, to await her sentence. A very much unwanted guest, particularly in the eyes of youngest daughter Lauga, Agnes examines her past and tries to come to terms with what has happened to her. The priest she chooses to absolve her, Assistant Reverand Thorvardur Jonsson (Toti), is keen to be on her side, but Agnes is reluctant to share her story with anyone. As the time of her execution draws closer, will anyone apart from Agnes learn the truth?
Burial Rites is a book that has generated a lot of buzz, something that is sure to increase now that it has secured a place on the short-list for the Baileys Prize for Women's Fiction. I was keen to read it from the moment I heard about it, but also a bit hesitant as I'm not a big crime reader and I wondered whether it would have enough cross-over appeal to work for me. Thankfully, Burial Rites lives up to the hype and I certainly enjoyed the reading experience. Kent's novel is an engaging story of a woman who was largely the result of her circumstances. Agnes is a fascinating and complex character, who reveals only part of herself to the other characters, and who tells her story in snippets as the chapters progress. I found myself drawn in by Agnes, and keen to find out what really happened the night of the two murders.
However, the biggest draw of the book for me was the way Kent wrote about Iceland. The rural North of Iceland is a main character in the novel, and Kent completely immerses the reader in the Icelandic culture of the time, from the role of the sagas in everyday life, to the badstofas the families would huddle in during the colder months. Life in the North was hard and unforgiving in those times, and the bleakness of the environment adds a lot of atmosphere to the novel - the harshness of the setting mirroring the harshness of Agnes' life. I loved reading these parts, and was impressed at how Kent, an Australian woman, was able to transport me completely to Iceland.
Having read Burial Rites, I can see why it was short-listed for the Baileys Prize. It's not a perfect novel, and I found the pace in the middle a little slow, but there's something engaging and haunting about it that will stay with you after you have turned the last page. I'm still rooting for Americanah to take the prize, but this would be a worthy winner.
Source: Personal copy
First Published: 2013
Edition Read: Picador, 2014
Score: 4 out of 5