81 of 86 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 15 months ago by Denise4891
52 of 57 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 13 months ago by Roman Clodia
Most Helpful First | Newest First
81 of 86 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 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.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A gradual thaw to tears,
1828 Iceland. A woman, with one male and one female accomplice, murders her lover. Convicted by the court, she is sentenced to death by beheading.
Icelandic custom involves sending its criminals to Denmark for their punishment, but here, the District Council decides to make an example of the three. They will meet their fate on Icelandic soil.
The system entails several appeals and deliberations, meaning a potential delay of months, even years before the sentence can be applied. So the three convicts are put to work on District Officers’ farms.
Agnes Magnúsdóttir is sent to Kornsá, and the farm of Jón Jónsson. She is to work alongside Jón, his wife Margrét and his daughters, Lauga and Steina. The shock of hosting a murderess throws ripples of confusion through the family. When news reaches novice priest, Reverend Tóti, that he is to be her spiritual counsellor, even the servant says, ‘Good Lord, they pick a mouse to tame a cat’.
The presence of the criminal excites and alarms the neighbours, but the household finds its own way of dealing with the unwanted guest. Steina is bewitched, Lauga is detached and Margrét sees Agnes for what she is – a woman, suffering.
The subtle change and adaptation of each character to the circumstances reminds me of the so-subtle-you-don’t-notice shifts in Brooklyn, by Colm Tóibín. In addition, the author’s choice of changing points of view, evocative detail of Icelandic peasant hardships and use of letters, documents and storytelling allows the reader to piece together a very different account to the official rendering of events.
A delicate, understated, hot under a cold surface story that had me in heaving sobs at the end. By which I mean to say, I loved it.
52 of 57 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 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.
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 "Out of my weakness fashion a character of fire",
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.
5.0 out of 5 stars She feels she’s being treated like an animal and clings on to some of her ...,
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 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.
17 of 21 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars 'Written so deeply... I can almost taste the ink',
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.
Most Helpful First | Newest First