92 of 97 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 22 months ago by Denise4891
61 of 67 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 20 months ago by Roman Clodia
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28 of 33 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "They Said That I Stole The Breath from Men",
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.
4.0 out of 5 stars Poetic and atmospheric,
Based on a true story, Burial Rites tells the story of Agnes Magnusdottir, an Icelandic woman in the 1830s who is found guilty of murder along with two others and sentenced to death. She is placed with a local family on their farm until the date of her execution and naturally they are horrified to be sharing their small home with a murderess. The first half of the book focuses more on Agnes's removal from her prison and placement with the family and then the second half focuses on what led Agnes to be accused of the murder of her lover/employer and another man.
This book was recommended to me as being similar to The Miniaturist, which I had loved. In many ways, this is correct, as it's got the same sort of slow and detailed style to it, and Burial Rites is a book which needs to be read at a slower pace than some books. It's very atmospheric and drew me into the area and gave me an appreciation of the desolation of the landscape in Iceland at that time. Agnes's story is interesting to read and I enjoyed both the parts where she told the story and the bits in the third person from the viewpoint of the young priest she asks to help her through the time before her execution, and the various family members with whom she finds herself living.
This is a very good book and I enjoyed it very much, but I can't say it was the easiest read. It has a poetic style about it but I didn't find it over the top in this respect. I think it will be interesting to see what this author does next.
5.0 out of 5 stars She feels she’s being treated like an animal and clings on to some of her ...,
This review is from: Burial Rites (Paperback)
Agnes is being held captive. She wonders whether she’s already dead. She waits in darkness and in silence, a chamber pot on the verge of overflowing. She’s got no inkling of how many hours or days have passed. She feels she’s being treated like an animal and clings on to some of her past memories for comfort. They forget to feed her sometimes and she no longer feels like a woman. She’s totally crippled by waiting for death.
She’s been condemned to death for her role in the death of two people found in the burnt ruins of Natan’s farm. The people involved are to be executed in Iceland and are due to be held in the homes of ordinary families in order to save costs. The home Agnes is moved to is in considerable disrepair, two servants losts their lives the previous year from diseases that started with the damp, mouldy house.
She’s staying with Jon and his wife Margret and their daughters Lauga and Steina. At first they’re suspicious of her, afraid of how they’ll be perceived by their neighbours and worried about what this woman could do to them. Agnes has been an outsider throughout her life, someone different from the rest, brighter than most. While staying at the house she’s visited by Reverend Jonsson, a man she’s specifically requested and whose official business to to bring Agnes to the Lord before she’s executed.
This is a work of fiction based on true events. We read on to see if we can get to the bottom of the story and find out if Agnes is innocent or guilty of the crime. The book raises questions of who we should believe and highlights that there are many different versions of any particular story. It’s beautifully constructed with the story being told from Agnes’s perspective and through letters and third-person narrative. I was totally immersed in it from the start and the story of Agnes will stay with me for quite some time.
5.0 out of 5 stars Pungent excellence,
Burial rites is based on the true story of Agnes Magnusdottir (or Jonsdottir) who was sentenced to beheading for her part, with two others, in the murder of shaman Natan Ketilsson and another man.
Awaiting execution she is sent to live in the home of minor official Jon Jonsson and his wife Margret. Initially they are horrified by their charge, but as time passes, a relationship grows between Agnes, her hosts, and their daughters, Lauga and Steina.
One of the joys of Burial Rites is that has a number of intermingled facets to it. It could be viewed as a whodunnit. As the relationship between Margret, Agnes and her callow spiritual adviser, Toti, grows, we gradually learn about what really happened on the night of the murder and subsequent fire.
It is a extremely well researched picture of peasant life in 19th century Iceland. A modern view of Iceland may be of the wide open landscapes, but this book is painted on a small, claustrophobic canvas as the people huddle together in their austere homes. The outdoors is limited to the small fields which must be rapidly cultivated in the brief weeks of summer, before winter returns and the landscape returns to being something which must be crossed between the tiny, barely flickering islands of warmth.
It is a delightful character study. The two daughters, one soft hearted and ready to be drawn to Agnes, the other frightened and suspicious. The District Commissioner who could be a pantomime villain, but is in fact a highly convincing portrait of arrogant moral certainty. A particular favourite was the neighbour, Roslin a highly amusing village busy-body.
It is a story of relationships, of relationships between women and between men and women. There is the exploitative relationship between Agnes and her lover, the unsatisfying relationship between Agnes and the ineffectual Toti, and above all the ultimately crucial relationship between Agnes and Margret.
There are also interesting elements to the structure of the book. All through there are changing viewpoints, but crucially all except Agnes are told in the third person. Agnes alone speaks with her own voice, and this is really effective in emphasising her loneliness, in setting her apart, in making her unique and different.
Secondly the pace is beuatifully judged. It starts slowly, but gradually builds and builds to its twin climaxes of learning what happened on the night of the murder, and of determining Agnes's eventual fate.
A final thing to say is that it is a supremely smelly book. In the cramped Icelandic croft, the badstofa, in the animal sheds, in Agnes's prison, it is a book of sweat, urine, excrement and every conceivable bodily fluid.
So, in summary this is a really good, engaging read, and despite the fact that it is at times quite harrowing, it never wallows in misery, it handles the painful experiences of its characters in a way which is realistic, affecting, but never exploitative.
5.0 out of 5 stars Bleak expectations in Iceland make for a hypnotic read.,
I had to read this book for our September bookclub, which was doing a double-meeting with this and The Rabbit Back Literature Society. Now, that sounds more ungenerous than I wanted it to. I wanted to read this book anyway and choosing it as a bookclub book gave me a legitimate reason to buy and read it.
It is set in early 19th century Iceland, at that time a dependency of Denmark and based on real events that happened in 1829 when the last execution for murder took place on Icelandic ground.
Agnes Magnussdottir has been found guilty of murdering two men and is being held in a private house in preparation for her execution. The family have to have a murderess living in their small house and to deal daily with the fear, hatred and distrust that they feel. A young and inexperienced priest, Toti, has been appointed to prepare Agnes for her fate and when he comes as often as possible he finds the best way to deal with Agnes is not to preach, or to share tracts of scripture, but to let her talk. And so she does.
The book is told either in the third person, allowing us to see the actions of Toti and the other people around Agnes or in the first person by Agnes herself. Very often the things Agnes and Toti talk about are expanded on and clarified by Agnes' monologues. You gain an insight into her life as a pauper, her work on various farms and the history that brought her to Natan's small holding. We are told the public version of events, through conversations or through chapter prologues that are official papers or letters, and we get an experience of other people's reactions to Agnes, but we only realise the whole story through Agnes herself. We know what the inevitable ending will be, but we still seek a different ending.
I enjoyed the book a lot. I thought that the characters were well-drawn and not caricatures. The relationships between them are conveyed well, and the subtleties of attitude changes were portrayed without fanfare. The descriptions of Iceland don't exactly encourage me to want to visit; it's bleak, cold and dark for a lot of the year. The Icelanders live in small dirt houses with little privacy and less possessions and the concept of isolation is palpable. It really does become another character in the story, as if the murders would not have happened if Agnes lived elsewhere. I'm looking forward to discussing it at our bookclub. It was not an easy read, but it was a compelling one.
Picador have a photoessay http://www.picador.com/blog/august-2013/burial-rites-a-photo-essay-from-iceland, showing sites named in the book. Looking at these brings the story even more to life, although I have to say I had the pictures in my mind that looked like these anyway, so well-described are the events.
What is also impressive is that it's a literary debut; hopefully Hannah Kent will write more of the same calibre. The book has been well-received and boasts an impressive list of awards and nominations;
5.0 out of 5 stars Just part of a PhD thesis!,
This review is from: Burial Rites (Paperback)
This Nordic murder novel set in early 19th-century Iceland originated as the creative component of the author’s PhD at Southern Australia’s Flinders University. Hannah Kent learnt about the double murder, which led to the last capital punishment on the island in 1829, whilst on an academic exchange.
In the absence of an Icelandic prison the condemned had to stay with local families whose menfolk held civil positions in the fragmented society until confirmation of the sentences was received from a Danish court. Whilst executions usually took place in Denmark, this was considered to be such a heinous crime that an example of justice had to be made to the islanders.
In over 300 pages the author introduces and then submerges the reader into the harsh lives of the isolated islanders. This is a debut novel [the author describes it as a ‘speculative biography’ rather than a ‘historical fiction’] and it is a huge credit to the author that she manages to present her claustrophobic story so well from multiple perspectives against the bleakest of landscapes and dour religious belief. A larger cast list might have made her fragmentary narrative confusing but the author judges this very well. Her fictional presentation was further constrained by the very considerable documentation and research about the incident and the people concerned. The different chapters of the book are preceded by contemporary documentation, supports that an experienced author might have omitted, and there is a helpful map.
A harsh judge might suggest some reduction in the novel’s length, especially as none of the central characters appears to develop very much in the second half of the book whereas their social interactions subtly alter. This is, more than most, a novel about how landscape and isolation can create an unbending character. The condemned woman at the centre of the novel is Agnes Magnúsdóttir and most of its action occurs on a northern farm, Kornsá, where she has been sent to live and work with the family, the farmer, Jón, his terminally ill wife, Margrét, two daughters Steinvör [Steina] and Sigurlaug [Lauga], and occasional farmhands. It transpires that Agnes, as a child, had lived there with a family who had subsequently left. The other main character is the Assistant Reverend Thorvárdur Jónsson [Tóti], the young minister she has requested to prepare her for death. Tóti, an innocent, comes from a family of ministers.
There are magnificent descriptions of the landscape, weather [‘autumn has been pushed aside by a wind driving flurries of snow up against the croft, and the air is as thin as paper.’], the seasonal demands of the farm [‘Soon families and their servants would be dotted along the home fields, scythes in hand, spreading the cut grass out to dry and the smell of mown hay would overwhelm the valley,’] and the inquisitive neighbours who come to peer at Agnes. Kent takes her time to introduce Agnes and Margrét’s family, then Tóti and then, finally, through his conversations with Agnes we begin to learn something about the people involved in the murders.
Agnes’ early life is described through flashbacks, her inner voice and, eventually, in her dialogues with Tóti which can be overheard by the farming family in the communal living/sleeping area. In this way the family’s attitude to Agnes changes. Needless to say, Tóti’s sympathetic attempts to get to know Agnes, ‘to listen not to preach’ in the time remaining to her, are not welcomed by his fellow churchmen or by the island’s civil leaders who insist he should ‘direct this murderess to the way of truth and repentance.’
The story has the darkness of a saga, from the disappearances of people in the snows, ravens signifying ill-will, family jealousies, dreams, the violence of the murders and the barbarity of the executions. Superstition and supernatural powers revolve around one of the victims, Natal Ketilson, a farmer and herbalist.
Described as a crime novel the tension builds incrementally, even though there is little doubt about the book’s ending [the axe used at the executions can be seen today in an Icelandic museum]. The final pages chill in a manner rare in contemporary Nordic and other murder novels. It shows Agnes’ distinctive voice becoming fearful and anxious, but never terrified, as the end approaches.
A very impressive debut, 9/10.
5.0 out of 5 stars Compelling, beautiully written, believable and understated,
This review is from: Burial Rites (Paperback)
Based on true events, 'Burial Rites' is a thoroughly intriguing and very well written story with an unusual setting - rural Iceland in the early 19th century. A workmaid convicted of murdering her employers is sent to stay with a farming family whilst awaiting execution. Over the course of the book, her backstory is gradually revealed. It is told in a mixture of the first person, by the convict Agnes herself, and in the third person from the perspectives of the family she lodges with and the young priest charged with saving her immortal soul. There are also short sections of true records of the case, which are used to open the chapters.
It is one of those books that immediately takes the interest of the reader, and holds it for the duration. The writing is easy to read with a nice turn of phrase and great descriptions. It remains fascinating despite having few characters and a simple setting which doesn't provide much in the way of variation for a writer. Kent conjures up the bleak, wild landscape of Iceland and gives a sense of the daily lives of the people. Her characters are plausible and well drawn, and most are likeable. The book includes a section on how to pronounce the Icelandic names and a map of the area, which are helpful.
The sense of claustrophobia of living in a small community where everyone sleeps in the same room, and the inevitability of time passing as the execution nears, are effectively invoked. But it isn't an uncomfortable read. It manages to be life affirming, in a quiet way. It's one of the those clever pieces of writing that gets under your skin without you realising how. It is gripping in an intense, measured way, and moving in a way that hits you only at the end. The reactions of the characters all seemed very plausible and Kent doesn't put a foot wrong when it comes to writing believable scenarios - be they ordinary and everyday, or extraordinary.
I enjoyed the unusual setting and the chance to read about a place and time I'd not seen combined in a book before. I would certainly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys literary fiction and well written novels. It's an impressive piece of writing that is gripping and satisfying to read, and I am already looking forward to the next novel from this author.
5.0 out of 5 stars An exceptional debut,
This review is from: Burial Rites (Paperback)
This was our book club choice for April and following our meeting was concluded to be a resounding success and definitely a keeper! Whatever I say isn't going to be sufficient, really, you should just read it!
After an off-putting start this has turned out to be one of my favourite reads of this year so far. I say off-putting start because the first couple of pages were notes on Icelandic names, pronunciations and a map. My immediate thoughts were I'm going to have to be flipping back and forth to understand what I'm reading. However, I was wrong. Yes, there's a lot of Icelandic words but I tended to skim over the them as I couldn't get my head around the pronunciations in my mind but this didn't detract from the story.
So, yes, this is Agnes' story, a convicted murderess sent to lodge with a family until the day of her execution. Told initially to her priest and later to her mistress we learn of what actually happened through Agnes' recollections. The host family initially are obviously not very welcoming, thinking they will be murdered in their beds but over the period of Agnes' confinement they mellow and are then not so dismissive of Agnes when they've heard her side of the story rather than the local gossip!
This is an excellently written novel: the details of hardship and living conditions, the relationship between Agnes and Toti was extremely poignant, they both seemed to need each other for their various reasons and the Icelandic setting could quite as easily have been Dartmoor or the Peak District with the barren and harsh surroundings.
The official letters at the beginning of the chapters detailing the events to follow; for example the commissioning of the axe, how the execution would be planned and carried out etc gave us insight into the legal proceedings and how Agnes was to be made an example of.
I really enjoy books that have taken true stories and interpreted their own endings such as The Black Dahlia and Frog Music, although this novels ending isn't fiction the overall novel is still an effortless combination between fact and fiction that the reader is unaware of where one ends and the other begins.
I do love the embossed velvety feel of the cover and with the paperback came an old fashioned sort of font which gave it a little more of an historical feel.
The ending was never going to be a happy one which we know that from the outset but I was still hoping that it would end differently, that there would be that last minute reprieve. It really was a very moving ending although I did feel that it came a little quick, almost hurried but then where could it go...
Overall, this is an outstanding debut novel with an incredible amount of research which is evident throughout - I do wonder if it's harder to write novels that are based on true events or all just pure fiction?
4.0 out of 5 stars Beautiful writing and a compelling story.,
Set against Iceland's stark landscape, Hannah Kent brings to vivid life the story of Agnes, who, charged with the brutal murder of her former master, is sent to an isolated farm to await execution.
Horrified at the prospect of housing a convicted murderer, the family at first avoids Agnes. Only Tóti, a priest Agnes has mysteriously chosen to be her spiritual guardian, seeks to understand her. But as Agnes's death looms, the farmer's wife and their daughters learn there is another side to the sensational story they've heard.
I purchased this book a while ago and as is the way of things with my reviewing schedule I have only just managed to pick it up - inspired by the fact that it appears on the Bailey's Prize Longlist in amongst some other terrific novels.
This is a beautifully written book, bringing into stark focus the bleak landscape and hard living conditions in the Iceland of the day and telling a fictional yet well researched account of a real life murder. Utterly compelling and often heartbreaking, this is a must read for Historical fiction fans and fans of intriguing stories with a real human twist.
Agnes is fascinating - as we learn more about her life and the horrific events that have brought her to where she is, awaiting her death, you will be right in the heart of the storm and desperate for her to find some way out. As a snapshot of the life and laws of the time this is compelling stuff - some wonderful prose and a terrific feeling of authenticity throughout will keep you right in the moment.
I was transported to another time and another place during the reading of this one, it was an emotional and inspiring reading journey in a lot of ways and comes highly recommended from me.
Can't wait to see what this author brings us next.
Happy Reading Folks!
4.0 out of 5 stars A young woman's tragic last months, beautifully and hauntingly written,
Agnes Magnusdottir was the last person to be executed in Iceland. This was in 1829, and this novel is a fictionalised account of Agnes' life and how she came to be in such an unenviable position. The author, is a young Australian woman, who as an exchange student to Iceland in 2003, first learnt about Agnes and in her words, became 'transfigured' by this tragic figure. In an interview she did with the Guardian newspaper, she talks about the loneliness and feelings of alienation she felt as a teenager in this foreign landscape and culture she found herself in. Years of research followed and the result is this haunting, compassionate and beautifully written novel, with not only Agnes at its core, but also the landscape of Northern Iceland - desolate, bleak, harsh, and cold.
It would seem that Iceland has always been a place of high literacy, reflected in the meticulous records, letters and documents that the author was able to draw upon in her research and which she has incorporated into her writings. The facts of Agnes' life and the murders she was associated with are also well known, as are many of the stories that have evolved over the decades about her, and the people in her life during her last weeks.
The novel centres on the last six months of Agnes' life, when she is placed in the custody of a farming family near where the executions are to take place. The family consists of Jon and Margret, and their two daughters Steina and Lauga, who I take to be late teens/early twenties. As part of the sentencing process, Agnes is also under the care/instruction of a priest, and she has asked specifically for a particular young priest to be her guide. The family, understandably, is very wary about having a convicted murderess living with them. But over time Agnes who is 33, and has considerable knowledge and experience of farm work, herbal medicines and midwifery, becomes very human to the family. In addition, we learn the story of her terrible life and how she came to be convicted of the murders. She really had no hope at all in her life, and it probably was only a matter of time before something she couldn't control happened to her. It is awfully sad, but very powerful and unfortunately typical of the lives of many, many women through history and today.
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Burial Rites by Hannah Kent (Paperback - 27 Feb. 2014)