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.
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.
Well this was a devastating read!!
Telling the tale, as it does of Agnes Magnúsdóttir:
‘Agnes Magnúsdóttir was the last person to be executed in Iceland, convicted for her role in the murders of Natan Ketilsson and Pétur Jónsson on the night between the 13th and 14th of March 1828, at Illugastadir, on the Vatnsnes Peninsula, North Iceland.’
There were no surprises as to the ending, but the further I read through, right up until the last page I was willing history to be changed, for Agnes to pardoned and her life to be saved. Why was I rooting so hard for a murderess? Well Hannah Kent has in her words to:
‘This novel has been written to supply a more ambiguous portrayal of this woman’
She does this by recounting the run-up to the murders, partly in the first person narrative that Agnes gives to her chosen priest, Assistant Reverand Tóti Jónsson who is to prepare her spiritually for her death and later to Magrét Jónsson whose farm she was sent to while awaiting her execution. We also have an omnipresent third person narrator who lends a wider view of the crime committed, and of Agnes herself. From this we get an alternative view of how and why Natan Ketilsson and Pétur Jónsson came to be slayed with a knife and a hammer one night. It would take the hardest of hearts not to feel some sympathy for Agnes, not because the author tells us so, oh no, far cleverer than that Hannah Kent paints a captivating picture of the coldness, darkness and sheer bleakness of life in nineteenth century Iceland alongside the more common tale of a woman deceived by her lover. For Natan and Agnes were lovers; it was for Natan she’d left the comparatively well-populated life in the valley farms as a workmaid to follow him to more or less entire seclusion in Illugastadir.
‘All my life people have thought I was too clever. Too clever by half, they’d say. And you know what Reverend? That’s exactly why they don’t pity me. Because they think I’m too smart, too knowing to get caught up in this by accident.’
Hannah Kent has used the Icelandic sagas as a base to weave the story around, many of the characters we meet prefer these sagas to the Christian teaching of the church. Through this we have the subtle yet powerful lyrical narrative that had me drawn into Agnes’s tale.
‘My tongue feels so tired; it slumps in my mouth like a dead bird, all damp feathers, in between the stones of my teeth.’
With its references to the superstitions of the day frequently referencing the ravens I came to dread their appearance fearing what horrors they may be about to foretell despite being in a nice warm cosy home not a home where the boards hiding the dung used to build the walls had been sold to enable the family of Jón Jónsson to eat. The feelings of the household to the newly billeted prisoner are also deftly drawn with a light touch. It is a supposed honour which comes with compensation but one that can’t be refused despite the concerns of both Jón and Magrét about the spiritual and moral welfare of both their daughter.
I can’t praise the author for the haunting simplicity of the writing in this book, although as the story worked its way towards its tragic ending, I was heartbroken.
‘They said I must die. They said that I stole the breath from men and now they must steal mine.’
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.
on 25 August 2014
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.
on 2 November 2014
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.
Burial Rites has won heaps of praise and prize nominations. Set in 19th century Iceland, chronicling the possible story of the last Icelandic woman to be executed, it sounds like a break from the norm.
The trouble is, it is very dull. Burial Rites has clearly been heavily researched and there are extensive references to the legal system; to court documents; to sagas and prayers. Pseudo-contemporaneous documentation has been created; a story woven around them; and the geography is immaculately correct. However, this research sits heavily on the text. It results in long lists of farms; townships; lineage of priests etc. Why use an English word when there’s a perfectly good Icelandic one available? Moreover, the people are two dimensional. They exist only in terms of their actions and their words; they do not have feelings or souls or characters. The words themselves are starchy and wooden; there is no differentiation between the voices of the seemingly endless cast of characters. For all the emphasis on Iceland, there is little to convey a real sense of place. The occasional reference to a mountain; to snow; to hills is thrown in to remind us of the landscape, but there is no sense of scale or distance or variation. For a sea-faring nation, the coast gets barely a mention.
The story is slo-o-o-o-w. In fact, it’s glacial. [Can you see what I did there?] We know from the blurb that Agnes is going to be executed. So there’s no suspense there. And we meet Agnes right at the start – so the entire novel is a plodding progress to the execution. All that happens is that Agnes is forced to live on a farm, working for her keep according to the direction of a reluctant woman Margrit. Gradually, as trust builds up, Agnes reveals the rather straightforward circumstances of her crime. But since Agnes, her co-convicts and her victims never feel three dimensional, there is little emotional engagement. Too often, it just feels like words on a page rather than an image of real life.
The language is mostly fussy, with a tendency towards self-conscious metaphor. The grammar is achingly correct apart from repeated examples of “and I” in the accusative case – things like: he came to see Margrit and I. This is put into more than one mouth so it is not an intentional tic. It irritates in an already irritating book. I found I spent way too much time looking at the progress bar and wishing it would hurry up. The good news, though, is that the Kindle edition finishes at 93% which feels like a 7% bonus – time off for good behaviour, perhaps?
In fairness, there are one or two set pieces that are well done – the murder scene itself, for example. But these are too far apart in word count, and feel completely unlinked in terms of narrative drive. It’s not enough.
on 10 July 2015
This is a fairly slow-moving tale, based on historical events in Iceland. The story is interesting enough, but the author falls over herself depicting the cold and grime of farming life of the time. The re-creations/translations of the historical letters fall into the same trap. From the other reviews I can see I'm out on a limb here, but this didn't hold my interest.
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.
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.