This is an extremely impressive debut novel and its haunting imagery and moving storyline will stay with me for some time.
1829: condemned murderess Agnes Magnusdottir (apologies for the lack of Icelandic punctuation in this review) is sent to a remote farm to live out her final days while she awaits execution. Along with two others Agnes has been convicted of the murder of two men, including the charismatic farmer/faith healer, Natan Ketilsson. The Jonsson family with whom she is billeted have no choice in the matter due to the father Jon's role as a District Officer (a low-ranking administrator) and are understandably suspicious and wary of having such a notorious woman living in their midst. Although on the surface they appear to be relatively affluent farmers with a retinue of servants and livestock, the Jonsson's still class themselves as peasants, fuelling their fires with dried dung and covering their windows with fish skin. Life is lived mainly in the `badstofa', the communal space where the family and their servants, including Agnes, sleep, eat and converse. This all adds to the sense of isolation and claustrophobia as Agnes slowly earns the trust and confidence of most members of the household, impressing them with her strong work ethic and sharing with them a love of the Icelandic sagas.
The day to day detail of Agnes's life on the farm is interspersed with her first-person account of her traumatic early life and the events leading up to the murders, mostly told in the form of a confession either to the matriarch of the family, Margret, or her chosen confidant and spiritual adviser, assistant priest Thorvardur Jonsson (no relation to the family). Thorvardur (Toti) is somewhat bemused at his appointment but soon becomes a steadfast and loyal advocate for Agnes during her darkest hours.
The writing is beautifully lyrical and evocative of the remote Icelandic landscape, complete with Northern lights, howling snowstorms and fields of volcanic rock. All this imbues the story with a spectral, almost supernatural quality, and makes me keener than ever to visit this fascinating country.
Burial Rites is based on a true story (don't Google it or you'll spoil the ending of the book!) and lucky Hannah Kent spent time in Iceland carrying out her meticulous research. The author bio tells us that she teaches creative writing at a University in Melbourne and is currently working on her second novel - based on the breathtaking eloquence and poignancy of her first, I am very keen to read it.
on 2 November 2014
I don’t read historical fiction very often, and when I do dabble it is almost always some sort of romance or has a paranormal twist.
Burial Rites has neither of those aspects and yet it is still one of the best books I think I have ever read (or listened to, as I had an audiobook copy).
The writing was stunning. Almost poetic at times (definitely poetic at others), lyrical and yet sharp and cutting when it needed to be.
The picture Kent created of Iceland in the early 1800s was complete – you felt the bitter cold of the snow and the gentle touch of the sunshine; you could smell the animal warmth of the cowshed and the smokiness of the kitchen; taste the warm milk and salty food; heard the ravens overhead and the cruel moaning of the wind, all in the stunning backdrop of the Northern Lights, wild ocean and looming mountains of the Icelandic coast.
I couldn’t step out of the world when I stopped listening, it stayed in my head and haunted my dreams the entire time it took me to listen to the whole novel. The characters and their stories felt real and honest and I found myself drawn into their lives like a ghost in the corner, watching everything unfold, learning secrets and sifting the facts from the gossip.
There was little to no light relief throughout the novel, it was a cascading tumble to the inevitable ending, as you would expect from a novel based on the life of a woman condemned to death. But this lack of comedy didn’t seem to matter, the changes in narrator were enough to stop you from drowning in too much misery and the matter of learning the truth in the mystery was a big factor in keeping you reading.
There were some graphic scenes and the images from at least one are going to stay with me for a considerable time. Kent has a way of making even the most harrowing moments beautiful and breaks your heart and fills you with fear all at the same time. Half of me wanted to press the stop button and walk away but it was compulsive and I rarely did, especially towards the end.
I cried my heart out more than once, feeling oddly hopeless as I did. It is strange because normally when you read a book, you have hope for the characters. Hope that even when things get tough, there will be some kind of a happy ending, perhaps not for everyone but at least for the main characters. You don’t have this when you know the novel is written about the last execution in Iceland – the ending is inevitable and unavoidable and no matter how much you want to shout ‘No!’ or bring about some magical happy ending, you know there won’t be one because it is based on fact and in reality Agnes Magnúsdóttir was beheaded on January 12th 1830.
There is power in hopelessness that I have never noticed so powerfully before until this novel. It is haunting and well worth the read if you are willing to stick with it despite the dark content.
I so wanted to love this like the other reviewers but I'm afraid that elusive alchemy between book and reader didn't work for me here. This is written in a style which I suspect you will either find beautifully poetic - or as tipping over into the faux-poetic at times: "the world has stopped snowing... the clouds hang still in the air like dead bodies... I am beyond time".
The characters feel elemental and as if they're meant to be mythic, drawing on the Norse and Icelandic sagas which Agnes tells us she knows by heart - but that's a slightly lazy way of not having to delineate them as characters, to leave them as types. And the book itself fits a type (e.g. Corrag): this is the story of a poor woman victimised by men and society, misunderstood and martyred, with only brief moments of human companionship, connection and empathy to sustain her.
The atmosphere of C19th Iceland is well done, as is the portrayal of the austere hardship of agricultural life. And there are some very powerful scenes towards the end which are genuinely moving and filled with pathos. Overall, however, this felt a bit over-wrought and fey for me, with its repeated use of dreams and portends, and its clear intention to be `mythic'. I loved the idea of this book, but we failed to gel.
on 22 June 2015
I realise that I may be the last person in the world to read ‘Burial Rites’, Hannah Kent’s much lauded debut novel.
It caught my eye a long time ago, when it was newly published, I acquired a copy, but when it arrived it didn’t call me. I think that maybe I read a little too much about it, maybe I felt that what I read and the knowledge that it was based on real, historical events said to me that there was less reason to read this book that there were to read other books.
I picked it up a little while ago, because it had been waiting for long enough, and it was time for me to either read it or let it go.
When I started to read I discovered that, though the story played out much as I thought it would, though there were no real surprises, the telling of the story was so very good that I had to keep reading.
The facts underpinning this book are simple and stark:
‘Agnes Magnúsdóttir was the last person to be executed in Iceland, convicted for her role in the murders of Natan Ketilsson and Pétur Jónsson on the night between the 13th and 14th of March 1828, at Illugastadir, on the Vatnsnes Peninsula, North Iceland.’
The story opens in 1829, a year after Agnes –and two others– had been found guilty of the two murders. Agnes was sent north, into the custody of District Officer Jón Jónsson, to work on his farm until the time came for her execution. where she will await the day of her beheading. District Officer, his wife Magrét and two daughters, Lauga and Steina, all of whom regard her with suspicion and distrust, but as they had no choice in the matter and they had to find ways to cope.
Allowed visits from a spiritual advisor , to prepare her for what lay ahead, and Agnes asked for the Assistant Reverend Thorvardur Jónsson. He had no idea why he had been chosen. He was young and inexperienced, and he knew that he was ill-equipped for the role he was called upon to play.
In time Agnes proves herself to be a good worker on the farm, and quiet and obedient in the house. The family relax, just a little, and Agnes realises and appreciates that. She begins to wonder if a reprieve as possible; and she slowly begins to talk about her past, and about the events that led up to the night of the murders.
The story is so well told. The prose is cool, clear and compelling; perfectly matched to the story.
The setting: 19th century Iceland, its landscape, its climate, its small rural communities are as caught perfectly. The isolation of the farms and the claustrophobia that comes when many people must share a small farmhouse are particularly striking. And the atmosphere is exactly right.
The narrative moved from the third person (for the District Officer’s family and the Reverend) and first person (for Agnes) quite naturally, and very effectively. It offered insights into all of the characters thoughts, and it placed events on that terrible, fateful night, as they were lived through by the person charged with the crime, at the centre of the story.
What happened was inevitable, Agnes had realised that, but she realised it far too late. She knew that:
“All my life people have thought I was too clever. Too clever by half, they’d say. And you know what Reverend? That’s exactly why they don’t pity me. Because they think I’m too smart, too knowing to get caught up in this by accident.”
Agnes’s story was harrowing, but it was utterly believable. At times it was difficult to read, already know how her story would end, but she had become real to me and so I had to keep turning the pages.
I can understand why ‘Burial Rites’ has been so lauded. The story is compelling and thought-provoking; the writing is rich and atmospheric; and it’s hard to imagine that a better story could have been spun around the known facts.
My only disappointment was the inevitability of it all. Of course the ending was inevitable, but I couldn’t help feeling that one thing that stood against that, one thing that suggested things really could be different, might have – for me – been the spark that would transform this book from ‘very good’ to ‘great’, from ‘memorable’ to ‘unforgettable’.
I’m sorry that I couldn’t find that spark.
In the end I found much to admire but I found little to love; and now I’m not sorry that I can let go of what is ultimately a dark story with an unhappy ending.
On a visit to Iceland, Australian teenager Hannah Kent became fascinated by the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last woman to be executed there in 1829. Agnes was convicted with two accomplices of involvement in the brutal double murder of herbalist Natan Kedilsson and his visitor Pétur Jónsson, setting fire to his house in an attempt to conceal the crime. Keen to explore the ambiguity of her guilt, what had shaped Agnes as a person who might commit such a crime yet retain some humanity and evoke sympathy, Hannah Kent went on to research the case in depth for a PhD which included a creative novel on the subject, leading to the publication of this bestseller, “Burial Rites”. I liked the way in which imagined scenes are interspersed with documentary evidence.
My first attempt to read this book failed as I found many of the characters somewhat two-dimensional and written too much in the same “voice”, the dialogue stilted, the prose often overblown. Much of the book is quite slow-paced and repetitive, continually reinforcing the bleak detail. Forcing myself to finish it for a book group, my main reservation became that too many events are told statically, rather than shown dramatically, through the device of Agnes relating them to a third party. I accept that this could reflect the oral tradition of relating Icelandic sagas over interminable dark winter evenings. It also raises the intriguing question as to her reliability as a witness. However, the storyline, which is quite well-developed as regards Agnes’s relationship with the ailing wife and two contrasting sisters at the farm to which she is sent pending her final sentence and execution, becomes fragmented and confusing as regards the events leading up to the final crime. Again, this could be intentional as regards suggesting ambiguity.
My conclusion is that Hannah Kent is an enthusiastic researcher rather than a talented writer, so that the main interest lies in the detailed portrayal of the harsh life in northern Iceland and social customs of the day. Whereas we now think of Iceland as a sexually liberated country, in the early C19, women farm workers had a raw deal, forced to choose between accepting the advances of their employers or being thrown out to possibly certain death in the bitter weather, at the same time risking the consequences of bastard children or the anger of a farmer’s wife.
on 10 October 2014
I would give this book 4 1/2 stars if I could. Why not 5? Because, as far as I can see, Hannah Kent's interpretation of events is entirely speculative- who knew you could obtain a PhD for a work of your imagination? At the same time, the work is presented as historical and whilst the mixing of fact and fiction doesn't worry most people, it bothers me. Call me stuffy but I feel that it is just a short step to rewriting the past to suit and that makes me uncomfortable. I suspect that every reader will come away from this book thinking that Iceland's last execution was a miscarriage of justice (can the death penalty ever be just? No, I say but you know what I mean) and that Agnes could have been any of us, if our lives had been as blighted and unlucky as hers. Even the author admits that was not the popular view of Agnes, in Iceland at the time, but almost 200 years later, we know better. Except we don't. That said the tale is gripping, despite the fact that the end is never in doubt. The characters seem real; you can see them, see the room, feel the cold, the fatigue, the fear that ebbs and flows, the hunger, the darkness, the lurking pain of a life without modern medicine ....I have never been to Iceland but I can see the village where Agnes ended her life, the lonely sea shore farmstead where it all came unravelled, the place of execution. The author showed them to me, clear as day, in my mind. Surely that is a huge achievement for any writer? And I cared, I cared about Agnes, about the bumbling priest of tremulous faith, about the dying farm wife...and I was sad for all of them. Read this book.
An intriguing book from the beginning, Burial Rites is set on Iceland, in 1828, and tells the story of Agnes Magnusdottir and three others who are convicted of the murder of one of their number and while the process of law is being followed, Agnes is billeted in the countryside with one of the local families. They are, understandably, reluctant to take on such a commission, but this is not an unusual request by the local District Commissioner, Bjorn Blondel. The other woman accused is also placed with a local family. We get a story within a story as Agnes eventually gives her version of what happened. It is a radically different story to that of the the District Commissioner.
The family she is billeted with are naturally nervous of having such a woman placed amongst them, but they need not worry. Margret, the lady of the house is not much moved by the tales told in the neighbourhood concerning Agnes who quite rapidly proves her worth by working hard and not causing any trouble. There are two daughters, Steina who comes to like and even admire Agnes, and Lauga, who doesn’t like Agnes at first, but latterly comes to respect her. Eventually they get quite a different story of what has happened. But while there may be doubts about Agnes, there seems no doubt that Agnes was somehow involved in the death of Natan Ketilssohn. Agnes has been assigned her own choice of religious carer, one Assistant Reverend Thorvardur Jonsson, who visits her and who she willingly gives her own version of the murder. This takes some time to be coaxed from her and meanwhile the reader might wish it didn’t take quite so long. But when it comes down to the facts, it is a matter of who you believe. Certainly the other people involved in the killing seem to bear much more guilt than Agnes. But the other woman accused is younger and prettier and it is her version which lays the blame on Agnes, that is believed.
This story ends with a brutal act on the day set for Agnes’s execution. The story is based on a real person. It is well written and compelling, and there has been copious amounts of research to back it up. It is very sad, often very moving and as much as one can enjoy being moved and saddened, I have to say it’s a superbly crafted story.
"A hunger so deep, so capable of driving me into the night, that it terrified me."
I'm always intrigued by books set in Iceland, and this one, set in 1829 and based on a true story of a woman awaiting execution for murder, sounded extremely interesting.
In 1829, Agnes Magnúsdóttir is one of two people condemned to death for her part in the murder of two men in an isolated farm holding in the north west of Iceland. She is put under the care of a District Officer, Jón Jónsson and his family, and the spiritual guidance of Assistant Reverend Thorvardur Jónsson, requested by Agnes as she had met him in her younger days, though the Reverent has no immediate recollection of this. The story of Agnes' last days is woven together for the reader with her life path which has led her to this tragic crossroads.
This is an absolutely wonderful book; the language is lyrical, the story is tragic yet utterly relatable, the characters flawed in all the ways of humanity. I found that reading the first person narrative of Agnes took us directly into her life and thoughts, where the scenes set where she was a third person were viewed as if through a sheen of `other-ness'. Hard to explain, but it seemed to fit a story which seems so unimaginable in its concept, and even more so given its basis in fact.
I cannot imagine living in such a harsh environment and at such a time, when Christianity and compassionate mercy can be lost behind the judgmental ways of law and life with its inevitable end. Agnes is a woman of strength and sorrow, and her life, and the way in which it is presented to us is totally tragic and haunting, yet remains as a fitting memento of this remarkable woman. I was left with the feeling that her ending did not define her life, so much of which was spent struggling against fate and futility.
This is one of those rare books which remains with you long after you have closed the last page; I found myself reading feverishly to see where the story took us next, yet so sorry to have finished such a wonderful journey. Totally recommended.
This haunting debut novel, set in Iceland, 1828, is based on real events. Three people are charged with the violent murder of two men, Natan Ketilsson and Petur Jonsson; among them Agnes Magnusdottir. Agnes was abandoned by her mother as a young girl, and spent her childhood as a foster child and pauper, being passed around various farms as a servant. In a bid to cut costs, District Commissioner Bjorn Blondal decides that the three convicted criminals are to be held by local officials in custodial holdings until the date and place of their execution is agreed. This means that District Officer Jon, his wife Margret and their daughters Lauga and Steina, are forced, unwillingly, to take Agnes into their home.
The author paints an evocative picture of the sheer unrelenting poverty and hard life endured by those working the land in Iceland at that time. Margret, whose health is suffering from the damp conditions, finds that she welcomes another pair of hands to help her, although reactions to Agnes differ throughout the family. As the book unfolds, Agnes tells her story to Margret and also to her spiritual advisor, Assistant Reverend Thorvardur Jonsson (Toti), who feels ill equipped for the task ahead. I have rarely been as moved by any novel as I was by this and think it would be a fantastic choice for a reading group, with much to discuss. I was very impressed, thought the writing exquisite and look forward to reading more from this very talented author.
A fictionalised account of the real events surrounding the last execution in Iceland, in 1830, that of an accused murderess.
Agnes is sent to stay with an official and his family until an execution date is decided. At first, she is feared and despised. Eventually, she is able to tell her story.
Laced throughout are (often translated transcripts of) court documents of the case, reminding the reader that this really did happen. They add a serious tone to an already dark book.
And it is dark. Or rather - cold. Very cold. The dung and furs can't stop a feeling of bitter cold creeping out of the pages, reminding you how central hearing wasn't always a given.
Agnes is a tragic figure, and she's not alone in this. You pity many characters for their hard lives, and come to respect some for their hard work and thirst for knowledge.
As I read I felt it all seemed quite familiar. It would work well to be read alongside a book for teenage readers - Siobhan Dowd's Bog Child, also set in the past about a vilified female threatened with execution.
The writing really brings out the chill of Iceland, the dark months and isolating and hard lives the regular people led at the time. The story is achingly sad. A powerful read, one you'll emerge from and immediately reach for a jumper.