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78 of 82 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Hauntingly eloquent and beautiful
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...
Published 12 months ago by Denise4891

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47 of 52 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Victimised, misunderstood and martyred
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...
Published 11 months ago by Roman Clodia


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78 of 82 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Hauntingly eloquent and beautiful, 7 July 2013
By 
Denise4891 (Cheshire) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Burial Rites (Hardcover)
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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.
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47 of 52 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Victimised, misunderstood and martyred, 23 Aug 2013
By 
Roman Clodia (London) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Burial Rites (Hardcover)
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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.
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27 of 32 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "They Said That I Stole The Breath from Men", 3 Sep 2013
By 
Susie B - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Burial Rites (Hardcover)
Based on actual events, Hannah Kent's powerful and beautifully written debut novel tells the story of Agnes Magnusdottir who, in 1829, in Northern Iceland, is tried and sentenced to death for her part in the savage murder of her lover, Natan Ketilsson. Once convicted, the authorities decide that until a date is set for her execution, Agnes will be placed under the care of District Officer, Jon Jonsson and his wife, Magret, on their farm at Korsna. It is hoped that living within a good Christian family will encourage Agnes to repent of her sins, and to further this aim, Agnes will be visited by Reverend Thorvardur Jonsonn (Toti), a young priest who has been appointed to help her to prepare to meet her maker. At first, Toti tries to preach to Agnes and to involve her in prayer, but realising that this is not having the desired effect, he encourages her to speak of her past life and, in this way, the reader gradually learns of the sequence of events which led up to the tragic incident. And as Agnes earns her keep by working alongside the Jonsson's on their farm, making butter, knitting socks and concocting herbal brews for Magret's consumptive cough, the family begin to see another side to Agnes and, as they learn more about their prisoner, they (and we) begin to wonder whether Agnes is actually guilty of the crime she has been accused and convicted of.

Hannah Kent travelled to Iceland on a Rotary Exchange when she was a teenager and this was where she first heard of Agnes Magnusdottir and became very interested in her story. Some years later, the author returned to this story and, using an interesting blend of fact and imagination, she has created this, her first novel. Meticulously researched and with extracts of official documents appearing at intervals throughout the text, this is a haunting and moving story, which is rich in atmosphere, full of period detail and deftly transports the reader to the harsh and unforgiving Icelandic landscape where: "Winter comes like a punch in the dark. The uninhabited places are as cruel as any executioner." A slow burn of a story, so maybe not for those who prefer a fast moving, plot-driven narrative - however, if you appreciate beautiful prose and enjoy reading books where the author focuses more on situation and setting, and if you are looking for something a little different, then this rather impressive debut novel should work well for you.

4.5 Stars.
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17 of 21 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars 'Written so deeply... I can almost taste the ink', 22 July 2013
By 
Laura T (Cambridge, U.K) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Burial Rites (Hardcover)
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When Hannah Kent's fictional version of the real historical figure, Agnes Magnúsdóttir, a servant woman who was the last person to be executed in Iceland, starts to relate a harrowing story from her childhood, she begins like this: '"Do I remember?... I wish I could forget it." She unhooked her index finger from the thread of wool and brought it to her forehead. "In here," she said, "I can turn to that day as though it were a page in a book. It's written so deeply upon my mind I can almost taste the ink."' It's Agnes's various retellings of her thirty-four years of life through this novel that are both its strength and its weakness, and also raise the most difficult questions for any historical novelist who chooses to use actual historical characters. While it's certainly possible to use real figures both ethically and effectively in fiction - Hilary Mantel manages it through the sheer depth of her research and the roundedness of her almost-biographical portrait of Thomas Cromwell, while Gaynor Arnold takes an easier road in 'Girl in a Blue Dress' and 'After Such Kindness' by renaming and reinventing Charles Dickens and Lewis Carroll - it's a hard thing to take on. Similarly, the switch between Agnes's first-person narration, and third-person narration from the points of view of Agnes's wards on the farm where she is being held, and the priest, Tóti, who has been assigned to her case, is technically challenging. There is a sense, in this novel, that Kent has taken on rather more than she can chew - but also evidence that she is already a very accomplished historical writer.

It's in the first-person sections of this novel that Kent's inexperience as a writer shows the most. Alongside beautiful third-person passages and carefully-written dialogue such as the section I've already quoted, much of Agnes's narration, seems, unfortunately, like it emerged from a creative writing class, especially in the melodramatic prologue: 'They said I must die. They said that I stole the breath from men, and now they must steal mine. I imagine, then, that we are all candle flames, greasy-bright, fluttering in the darkness and the howl of the wind, and in the stillness of the room I hear footsteps, awful coming footsteps, coming to blow me out and send my life up away from me in a grey wreath of smoke.' The first-person narration poses problems beyond the stylistic, however. Kent's sympathetic portrayal of Agnes seems to contradict the current historical consensus on her case (though I have barely any knowledge of Icelandic history, and this is taken from Kent's own comments in the epilogue, so I may be wrong) and I felt uncomfortable about her presentation for historical reasons. Furthermore, from a literary point of view, it seemed to me it would have been simply more interesting to present a morally ambiguous heroine constrained by the mindset of her time, rather than a character who is easily accessible to modern readers because she defies convention and is 'strong'. This is a type of story that has been told before - told well, in Margaret Atwood's 'Alias Grace', and told badly, in Susan Fletcher's 'Corrag', for example - and I wanted something new from both Kent and Agnes rather than the usual tropes about the horror of Agnes's undeserved fate. In the first-person passages, I found it difficult to sympathise with Agnes or care about what happened to her because she seemed so idealised.

Both these concerns could have been addressed, I think, if Kent had kept to third-person narration throughout the novel, and I say this not only because I think the first-person sections don't work, but because the third-person narrative works so well. It's in these chapters that Kent's abilities as a novelist come to the forefront. She effortlessly manages the difficult balancing act that every historical novelist has to attempt, bringing early nineteenth-century Iceland to life without overloading the story with historical detail, using small oddities such as its unusually high literacy rates and lack of prisons to great effect. The characterisation of the family who shelter Agnes in her last weeks, and of her priest, is sparing but convincing, and even Agnes herself seems to come to life when seen through other people's eyes, or when she narrates her past through dialogue rather than first-person monologue. Avoiding first-person could also have kept Agnes's story more ambiguous, and addressed some of my historical concerns. While this novel is already gripping and memorable, my frustration lay in the fact that I felt it could have been even better, and perhaps this is why this review seems more negative than the novel truly deserves. The ending, in particular, is hauntingly vivid, and on the strength of that alone, I'll be waiting for Hannah Kent's next book.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent book, 1 May 2014
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This review is from: Burial Rites (Kindle Edition)
I found this book, this story, to be excellent. It is well written and holds the attention of the reader throughout. It deserves all of the accolades it receives.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Grim tale, 6 Oct 2013
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This review is from: Burial Rites (Kindle Edition)
A powerful plea for understanding and a sincere indictment of capital punishment.
The final days of Agnes's life are almost unbearable. Stay with this bleak narrative because it gives back heartfelt humanity to the reader. It also reveals the compassion of the church in a time and place when it was expected to simply endorse the rule of law. I suspect this character and her sad story will haunt me.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Burial Rites, 4 Oct 2013
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This review is from: Burial Rites (Hardcover)
I enjoyed this book very much, although getting nearer and nearer to the end you knew what the result was going to be which was rather sad but a true fact. Hanna went to great lengths in her research which made the book really interesting and readable.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good read, 25 Sep 2013
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This review is from: Burial Rites (Kindle Edition)
Very good read. Excellent writing style. Looks like I need another 9 ,no 7 words to enter a comment. What a rubbish review system. Won't do it again
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Beautifully written historical novel with a heart of darkness., 7 Sep 2013
By 
JK "Julie K." (UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Burial Rites (Hardcover)
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Burial Rites is an historical, 19th century, fictional account of a real character, Agnes Magnusdottir, accused of double murder and the last person to be executed in Iceland.

The novel attempts to recreate the life of Agnes as she's held at a family farm to await her execution. The farm setting works extremely well and allows the author free reign to create many tensions between the characters. Family and murderess live and work alongside one another and their uncertainties are well evoked. I have no idea about the accuracy of the historical research but the novel reads well in that respect and I was happy to suspend any doubts and go along with the story.

At around the half way point the author decides it's time enough for Agnes to open up and recount exactly what happened and why she's in her current predicament. She has chosen to do this through a series of long running passages in which Agnes recounts the details of her crimes and the build up to them in her own words. This long running monologue packed with it's themes of hardship, cruelty, general misery and disastrous relationships rips away the character of Agnes as the reader has come to know her. She's replaced by a much weakened, less believable woman wanting little more than to blame her circumstances and cry 'woe is me'. Where's the Agnes of the former chapters? To this point she's been portrayed as an intelligent, thoughtful, resourceful woman enchanting enough to charm the birds from the trees but becomes so weakened by so much exposure her entire sense mystery disappears. Hannah Kent takes too many liberties with the thoughts and feelings of the 'real' character and loses Agnes beneath the overloaded, romanticised dialogue.

I had to push myself to continue reading the novel but; once past the over worked monologue the story improves greatly as Hannah Kent leads the reader to a wonderfully emotive conclusion that almost had me in tears. For me, the second half of the novel rescues it and the build up to the day of execution is superbly done...hence a 4* rather than a 3* review.

If I'm being completely honest Burial Rites frustrated me almost as much as it fascinated me. Hannah Kent has piled on the melodrama to the point her writing clashes with the harsh, gritty reality of the story and Agnes becomes irritating in places which is such a shame after so much obvious time, love and care was taken to discover her in the first place.

My own reading pleasure would be rated at 3* for the majority of Burial Rites but when Hannah Kent hits her stride the story of Agnes Magnusdottir is spell binding. For that reason I'm lifting my review to 4* which perhaps reflects writing quality rather than personal enjoyment.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A rollercoaster read, 29 Aug 2013
This review is from: Burial Rites (Hardcover)
Set in Iceland in the late 1820's, the book is based on the true story of Agnes Magnusdottir, a young woman sentenced to death for her supposed part in the murder of 2 men. Many of the letters and documents which start off each chapter have been translated and adapted from original sources.
Instead of being held until her execution in jail, she is sent to work on a farm. The state offers Agnes the opportunity of being allocated a minister to offer her spiritual guidance in her final months and Agnes decides to ask the Reverend Toti to visit her on a regular basis where they talk and gradually Agnes' tragic story is revealed her conviction for murder is not as solid as we are originally thought.
As Agnes' time at the farm of Jon and Margret goes on, the family (with the exception of the youngest daughter Lauga) begin to see her more as a servant than a convicted murderess awaiting execution. The story of Agnes is heart breaking and I frequently found myself wondering if Agnes' childhood had been different would her life have taken a different course.

The book is written in the first and third person this means you hear Agnes' story from her own point of view and then the narration in the third person gives a wider picture. I found I was quickly drawn into this spell binding novel and the author's passion for the story of Agnes is obvious. I loved this book and want to congratulate Hannah Kent on a fantastic debut book which takes you on an emotional rollercoaster.
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Burial Rites
Burial Rites by Hannah Kent (Paperback - 27 Feb 2014)
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