Thursday, 10 April 2014

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent


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

28 comments:

  1. I'm so glad that this book is garnering the kind of attention that it's getting. I got to meet Hannah Kent during her US tour in the fall and she was just delightful. I actually had trouble concentrating enough to keep the various characters straight in my head, but I did love the evocation of Iceland in the parts that I did read.

    (I loved Americanah, too, but I'm still not sure which book I'm rooting for for this prize!)

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    1. Lucky you getting to meet the author :)
      I found Toti hard to keep track of first of all, he had so many names!

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  2. I'm patiently awaiting this at the library. Our reservations system has suffered as a consequence of IT updates. I love novels where the environment plays a major role especially if it's a brooding desolate location!

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    1. I was waiting too, but then I saw the lovely edition with the black pages in Waterstone's on the buy one, get one half price offer and couldn't resist!

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  3. So glad to hear you liked this one! Really must bump it up the TBR pile :)

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  4. Thanks for your writeup. I've had Burial Rites on the TBR since last year, and I think I'll move it up in the pile. The unusual setting is what attracted me to it, as well as all the accolades it's been receiving. I'm not sure I like the paperback cover design, though; I prefer the original one!

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    1. It was the historical elements plus the Icelandic setting that really attracted me. The paperback is lovely in real life, it's a very vibrant blue and the pages are black-edged.

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  5. I'm really drawn to the idea of an Icelandic setting. I've never been there! In a book or otherwise. :) Great review, Sam!

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    1. Now I've read about Iceland in a book, I'd love to go in real life...

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  6. I really enjoyed this book when I read it last year.

    Kimberlee
    girllostinabook@hotmail.com
    www.girllostinabook.com

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  7. I'm definitely looking forward to reading this. The hype does worry me a bit but glad to hear that you loved it, nevertheless.

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    1. Hype always worries me too, I try not to let it effect my expectations, but I'm sure it does a little bit.

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  8. I also loved the evocation of Iceland and the harsh life lived there, found the novel quite haunting, loved the fact that Kent managed to maintain an effective ambiguity.

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    1. I loved all of the things you mention :)

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  9. Interesting cover. I thought this book was great- I'm glad you liked it too!

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    1. It seems like most readers have enjoyed this book.

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  10. I have this book - thank you for the review.

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  11. It looks like we had quite similar experience with Burial Rites. What I enjoyed the most was the Icelanding landscape and life at the time, it felt very realistically described.

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  12. I love when an author can make the setting feel like a prominent character.

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  13. I just saw Kent earlier this week at an event here in the States--she made a joint appearance with Emma Donoghue. While Donoghue was the main draw for me, the way Kent talked about Iceland, both her experience there and the writing of the book, really hooked me. Think I'll read this one in the heat of summer!

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  14. I'm listening to the audiobook now, and I'm finding it really slow going. The writing and narration are well done, but given its strengths - the atmosphere and setting - I think I would have done better to read it in print.

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  15. I am glad you liked it. Most bloggers whose reviews I follow enjoyed it as well, but there has been quite a lot of criticism around of lately. I must admit, it feels like a less sophisticated copy of Atwood's "Alias Grace", but it still makes a great debut novel on its own.

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  16. Yay!! So good. Iceland reads beautifully, doesn't it?

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  17. Thanks for visiting my review on the same book. Glad we feel the same about the book if it wins. I finished "The Lowland" yesterday and for personal reasons and Lahiri being my favourite, I love it. Have you read it yet?

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  18. I've been meaning to read this one...!

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