Burial Rites

If I had to choose one word to describe Hannah Kent’s debut novel Burial Rites, I’d choose bleak. Before you close out this screen and rule out the book, let me tell you that it is a good type of bleak–chilly, dark, and harsh, with stories and characters that dig deeply into you. Burial Rites gives an alternate story and voice to Agnes Magnúsdóttir, who was executed in Iceland in 1830 for her part in murdering two men (incidentally the last instance of capital punishment in Iceland). History has remembered her as a heartless murderess and a witch.

Burial Rites offers an alternate story for Agnes’s life. Having been condemned to death, Agnes is sent to live on a remote farm with district officer Jón Jónsson, his wife, Margrét, and two daughters, Steina and Lauga. She is frequently visited by Tóti, the newly-minted, uncertain assistant reverend who has been tasked with bringing Agnes back to God through lecture and fear before her death.

The family is initially horrified to play host to Agnes and want as little to do with her as possible. The reverend, Tóti, struggling to find his feet, does something that ends up rather radical. Instead of preaching and lecturing to Agnes, trying to scare her into redemption, he chooses to listen to her. Slowly, Agnes begins to share her life and her side of the story.

I used the word bleak to describe this book earlier. Part of that has to do with the subject matter–murder and anticipating one’s death. There are not any moments of levity that come to mind. But bleak also describes the setting. Life in rural Iceland in the 1830s is a daily struggle against a harsh (but beautiful) landscape to simply survive. Agnes works alongside the family, and slowly they begin to listen to her as well, finding a person behind the label of monster and murderer. And when winter keeps them inside, they also begin to listen to Agnes.

Hannah Kent’s writing matches her story–stark, down-to-earth, but also lyrical. Burial Rites is a very well-written book, and particularly impressive for a debut novel. Here’s a small sample for you:

“Those who are not being dragged to their deaths cannot understand how the heart grows hard and sharp, until it is a nest of rocks with only an empty egg in it. I am barren; nothing will grow from me anymore. I am the dead fish drying in the cold air. I am the dead bird on the shore. I am dry, I am not certain I will bleed when they drag me out to meet the axe. No, I am still warm, my blood still howls in my veins like the wind itself, and it shakes the empty nest and asks where all the birds have gone, where have they gone?”

 Beautiful. But bleak.

Kent could have found herself constrained by her characters, limited because most of them were real people. But she manages to bring Agnes, Tóti, and the family to life, along with the Icelandic landscape. The almost-but-not-quite-mother-daughter relationship that grows achingly slowly between Agnes and Margrét was particularly moving.

My only criticism of the book was that at times it seemed to depend a bit too much on Agnes simply retelling her story. At the beginning of the book, her story and the retelling was woven into the plot and daily life on the farm. However, as the book continued on and Agnes began to share the events leading up to the murder, we spend a lot of time sitting by the fire listening to Agnes sit and simply recount what happened. Because it is winter and there isn’t much plot-wise going on, Kent tries to add variety by switching between points-of-view, but it is only partially successful.

I recommend Burial Rites, especially if you’ve enjoyed the work of Geraldine Brooks or Barbara Kingsolver. Burial Rites will be published in September, but if you’re like me and like to match your books to the season, I’d hold onto this one for late fall or winter.

4 stars.

I received an ARC of Burial Rites through NetGalley. Burial Rites will be released on September 10, 2013.

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