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91 of 96 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 21 months ago by Denise4891

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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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91 of 96 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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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Beautifully written historical novel with a heart of darkness., 7 Sept. 2013
By 
JK "J. 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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61 of 67 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
(TOP 100 REVIEWER)   
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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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Haunting and brilliant, 2 Nov. 2014
This review is from: Burial Rites (Paperback)
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.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Tragedy in early 19th Century Iceland- you can almost feel it, taste it, smell it.., 10 Oct. 2014
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This review is from: Burial Rites (Kindle Edition)
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.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "Out of my weakness fashion a character of fire", 24 Sept. 2014
By 
Eileen Shaw "Kokoschka's_cat" (Leeds, England) - See all my reviews
(TOP 1000 REVIEWER)    (REAL NAME)   
This review is from: Burial Rites (Paperback)
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.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Cold and dark. Evocative and sad. Excellent debut, 8 Oct. 2013
By 
K. J. Noyes "Katy Noyes" (Derbyshire, UK) - See all my reviews
(TOP 100 REVIEWER)   
This review is from: Burial Rites (Hardcover)
4.5 stars

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.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "They said that I stole the breath from men, and now they must steal mine", 25 Oct. 2014
By 
sally tarbox (aylesbury bucks uk) - See all my reviews
(TOP 500 REVIEWER)   
This review is from: Burial Rites (Paperback)
Wonderful recreation of a true story from 1828 : a murder in Iceland of a healer by his two young female servants, and a male neighbour. The novel follows one of the accused, Agnes Magnusdottir, as she awaits her execution.
The story opens with her being moved, more dead than alive, from jail to being billetted on the reluctant family of a local official. During her time here, we learn more about the crime, as well as seeing a development in her relationship with the family, and her priest.
The author writes in both first and third person, as well as interspersing poems, hymns and documents. I found those parts in first person slightly more convincing than the reported conversations.
The grim world of early 19th century Iceland is brilliantly evoked and overall this was one of those books which, as you finally close it, causes you to say "Wow, that was a good read!"
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A gradual thaw to tears, 25 Aug. 2014
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This review is from: Burial Rites (Kindle Edition)
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.
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6 of 7 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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