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84 of 89 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 17 months ago by Denise4891

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55 of 61 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 16 months ago by Roman Clodia


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84 of 89 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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55 of 61 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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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Grim but beautiful!, 7 Oct 2014
This review is from: Burial Rites (Kindle Edition)
Wow, what an extraordinary debut! The story is so fresh and different, set in a remote corner of Iceland some 200 years ago. It felt so genuine I was mightily surprised to discover that the author was actually ... an Australian. And we owe her a huge credit for the daunting task of digging through to the bottom of the story of Agnes Magnusdottir, which took her years. Chapeau, this work was really impressive and coupled up with her imagination... the result is a gripping story, a human story, a different story of Agnes.

Agnes Magnusdottir, who indeed lived in Iceland at the beginning of the XIXth century, was the last person in Iceland to be executed. We get to know her when she is being transported into custody of a family in a remote village in Iceland, awaiting the day of her execution. Through wonderful story-telling by Ms Kent we get to know her better, to understand her, to feel what she feels. That alone is very well done, with the story floating from a person to person to, eventually, compose a complete picture. What is a bonus is the wonderfully detailed, and truthful descriptions of Iceland from the era, habits and rituals, clothes, ordinary life and landscape. This seem to be fitting very well with Agnes' story too, making it almost as important as the leading character. I bet had the story been set in England or elsewhere, it would have been nowhere near this powerful. It is grim allover, the sun shines maybe for a day or two, but it is still beautiful.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A simple story, but beautifully told!, 9 Nov 2014
By 
Lola (London) - See all my reviews
(TOP 1000 REVIEWER)   
This review is from: Burial Rites (Kindle Edition)
This is a truly superb book that brought tears to my eyes! The case of Agnes Magnusdottir left me heart-broken, choked and sad, and, at the same time, I have rarely just stumble upon such a gem of the book! This was a real pleasure to read! The language is curt and crisp, yet the narrative is gripping and beautiful – I could not put the book down! The final pages were told with such simplicity and precision – it was almost too much!

A simple story, but beautifully told!

Bravo to Hanna Kent!
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29 of 34 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
(TOP 50 REVIEWER)   
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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5 of 6 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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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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3.0 out of 5 stars ok......but......, 24 Oct 2014
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This review is from: Burial Rites (Kindle Edition)
I would start this review by commending the author on her writing skills. I have read many debut novels during recent years and this is probably one of the best written I have come across. Similarly, the proof readers (if any) and the publishers editorial staff appear to have made fine contributions.

Having never visited the island of Iceland, I cannot comment on the accuracy of locations mentioned, but I take it as read that they are spot on.

Also being a stranger to the history of Iceland, I had never heard of Agnes Magnusdottir (the principal character) who was tried, convicted and executed - along with one other - in 1830 for the crimes of murder and arson. Here again it seems that the author has taken great pains over the required research. I assume that the period details regarding the poverty and hunger of the general population who have a constant struggle merely to survive are also authentic.

Why then only 3 stars? Quite simply, I found myself unable to empathise with any of the characters to whom we are introduced. Agnes herself, despite (or perhaps because of) her deprived childhood appears to be more than a little carnally egocentric, The Assistant Reverend Thorvardur Jonsson (aka Toti) comes over as something of a whimp who, rather than leading Agnes to redemption gives the impression that he is falling in love with his charge, thereby neglecting the offices into which he hopes to be ordained. The District Commissioner Bjorn Blundel seems no more than a cost conscious local politician. The family with whom Agnes is lodged - pending her execution - Jon, Margret, Luaga and Steina Jonsdottir come over as more than a little dull, although in fairness Jon and Margret do seem blessed with a degree of common sense.

For fear of a spoiler, I will not go into the nuts and bolts of the story, but would remind potential readers that this is a fiction woven around actual historical events and therefore the final scenes should not come as a surprise.
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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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4.0 out of 5 stars "Out of my weakness fashion a character of fire", 24 Sep 2014
By 
Eileen Shaw "Kokoschka's_cat" (Leeds, England) - See all my reviews
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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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