BURIAL RITES by Hannah Kent

Book Quote:

“I hope they will leave some men behind, to make sure she doesn’t kill us in our sleep.”

Book Review:

Review by Betsey Van Horn  (APR 10, 2014)

Twenty-eight-year-old Australian author Hannah Kent spent time in Iceland while in high school, chosen because she wanted to see snow for the first time. She fell in love with this island country south of the Arctic Circle, and returned several times to do extensive research on Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last woman to be beheaded in Iceland, in 1829. Kent imagined the interior psychological states of various characters, especially the enigmatically alluring Agnes, and has successfully penned a suspenseful fiction tale that transcends the outcome. It reveals a complex love triangle and double murder, and a provocative examination of the religious and social mores of the time. Knowing the fate of Agnes prior to reading the novel won’t change the reader’s absorption of the novel. The strong themes hinge on the backstory and viewpoints that are woven in and reveal characters that go through a change of perception as the circumstances of the crime come to light.

Each chapter begins with official or private correspondence or testimony, which reflects the judicial process and established standards of the time, which was then under Danish rule. The title refers to whether the dead are fit to be buried on consecrated ground. Agnes is sent to northwest Iceland, to stay with the district officer, his wife, and two daughters, pending her execution. The family members are outraged at first, some more than others. The farmers in the area are also hostile to her. Over time, as her story unfolds, I became emotionally engaged with Agnes, and touched by the young cleric, Toti, Agnes’ appointed spiritual advisor.

Kent is a poetic writer, whose descriptions of a grim, harsh, bleak landscape and a socially rigid terrain are told with a striking beauty.

“Now we are riding across Iceland’s north, across this black island washing in its waters, sulking in its ocean. Chasing our shadows across the mountain.”

“They have strapped me to the saddle like a corpse being taken to the burial ground.”

“…waiting for the ground to unfreeze before they can pocket me in the earth like a stone.”

The restrained savagery and cruel irony reflects in those that persecute Agnes and accept the official story of her acts as gospel. The gradual overtures of Toti and certain members of the family were organically developed, allowing for tension and intimacy in equal measure. The slight stumbling block for me was accepting Agnes’ relationship with her lover, Natan, one of the men she is convicted of killing. I understand that very smart women can often make poor choices in men; however, Agnes was depicted as a self-contained woman. I had a difficult time accepting her bottomless apology for Nathan’s consummate cruelty and selfish barbarity.

Despite my tenuous acceptance of Agnes’ love for Natan, I did register the isolated, punishing terrain of 19th century Iceland, especially in the winter months, when loneliness was crushing, and reaching out for companionship a pressing need. The landscape came alive as a character, and Kent folded in an Icelandic Burial Hymn and bits and pieces of the Nordic sagas and myths, such as “I was worst to the one I loved best.” Poet-Rosa, who also loved Natan as passionately as Agnes, writes a bitter poem to her. (Interestingly, I have just read the first 80 pages of the Laxness novel of Icelandic sheep farmers, Independent People, in which a character named poet-Rosa is described.)

This is an impressive debut novel, easily read in a few sittings. The point-of-view shifts back and forth from third to first skillfully. By the end of the novel, I was able to answer the question of whether a condemned life can have meaning, and whether the person who is condemned can change the perceptions of others –for the better. I will be looking out for Kent’s next novel.

AMAZON READER RATING: from 699 readers
PUBLISHER: Back Bay Books (April 1, 2014)
REVIEWER: Betsey Van Horn
EXTRAS: Interview and Excerpt
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April 10, 2014 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , , ,  · Posted in: Character Driven, Debut Novel, Facing History, Iceland, Mystery/Suspense

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