What I'm Reading: Burial Rites

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent is a fictionalized account of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last person to be executed in Iceland.  The book focuses on the last few months of Agnes' life, as she awaits execution at a remote farm in northern Iceland.  Through the priest who is sent to serve as her spiritual administrator and the family with whom she lives, Agnes is able to tell her life story, focusing on the hardships, poverty, and tragedy that she faced throughout and finally revealing her role in the grisly murders that ultimately led to her conviction.

Burial Rites isn't a plot-driven book, and reflecting on it, I'm more prone to think of its tone and mood: somber, contemplative, evocative, richly detailed.  A quote from The New York Times calls it "gorgeously atmospheric," and I couldn't agree more.  I didn't know much about Iceland in the nineteenth century, and this book provided an intricate and very beautiful look into life at that time.  Given Kent's subject matter, she is able to explore a variety of issues, including faith and religion, gender and relationships, purity and sexuality, poverty, abuse, morality, and criminal activity.  I thought she handled these subjects with care and finesse, allowing them to come to light through the narrative without ever revealing an agenda in her handling of them.

I found the relationships in the book, particularly those between Agnes and the priest and Agnes and Margrét, the matron of the family with whom Agnes has been placed, to be incredibly rich and compelling.  They felt very real and natural, and I liked seeing characters who were able to show compassion toward Agnes and make her feel safe to tell her story.  Agnes displays a very real and very human desire to be known and understood, and while many characters are quick to write her off in the beginning, Kent is able to develop several meaningful relationships through which Agnes' desire to ultimately fulfilled.  It may not save her life, but it does give her some peace, and when she goes to her death, she goes knowing that she is not alone.  

I had some problems with the structure of the book, and toward the end, it became a bit formulaic and repetitive.  Once Agnes gets to the crux of her story, the structure starts to feel like a serialized narrative, like every time she sees the priest or Margrét, she tells them the next installment in her story.  I wish that Kent had come up with a more natural and seamless way for Agnes to tell her story so that it doesn't feel so formulaic.  

Overall, though, Burial Rites is a solemn yet beautiful narrative.  Four out of five stars.           


  1. I wish I had tried to read the book first. I listened on audiobook, and the narrator's portrayal of Agnes' voice annoyed me so much that I quit listening after two discs. It kind of ruined the whole thing for me.

  2. When I think about the books that have stuck with me over the years, the ones that I remember fondly, many if not most of them are ones that were evocative. That had palpable mood tone and mood. Those feelings linger long after the well turned phrases and intricacies of plot fade into the hazing background of my memory. This sounds like one of those books, utterly striking.

    It sounds like an interesting story, particularly the theme and setting. I have always been fascinated by Iceland (probably stemming from a high school history project and the whole "Greenland should be the name of Iceland, but the vikings switched the names on the map" thing). My reading tastes have been tending toward the frivolous and distracting lately, but perhaps I should add this one to my to-read list.


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