Northern Iceland, 1829. A woman condemned to death for murdering her lover. A family forced to take her in. A priest tasked with absolving her. But all is not as it seems, and time is running out: winter is coming, and with it the execution date. Only she can know the truth. This is Agnes’s story.
Burial Rites is one of those books in which not a lot happens, but you’re compelled to read regardless. Hannah Kent has written a beautiful novel, based on real events that took place in Iceland in the 1800s.
Agnes Magnúsdóttir is awaiting execution for playing a part in the murder of two men. We are not sure how or why she was involved, or if in fact she actually committed the crime, and the slow release of that information is where the tension, and intrigue comes from.
Agnes is sent to the isolated home of Jon Jonsson and family where she will await her execution date, much to the family’s dismay. But as they get to know Agnes, she begins to open up about the events leading up to her incarceration, and starts to become a part of all their lives. Everyone is affected by Agnes’ presence in different ways.
Burial Rites is a chilling read, and written a lot more simplistically than I was expecting, considering all of the literary awards it has been nominated for. In parts it reads like a Thriller or Family Saga rather than literary fiction, and that was a pleasant surprise for me.
I also thought that Kent captured the harsh environment of Iceland, and the hardiness of its inhabitants well. One of the main reasons I was so looking forward to this book was because I visited Iceland earlier in the year and totally fell in love with it. And while Burial Rites is set when Iceland was completely different to how it is today, I still saw a lot of similarities. What I loved about Iceland, I also loved in this book – the beauty in bleakness.
Agnes’ story reveals a whole other story of strength, faith, and survival. It is bleak, but not depressing, and definitely a story worth telling.