Title: Burial Rites
Author: Hannah Kent
Genre: Literary Historical Fiction
Synopsis: Set against Iceland’s stark landscape, Hannah Kent brings to vivid life the story of Agnes, who, charged with the brutal murder of her former master, is sent to an isolated farm to await execution. Horrified at the prospect of housing a convicted murderer, the family at first avoids Agnes. Only Tóti, a priest Agnes has mysteriously chosen to be her spiritual guardian, seeks to understand her. But as Agnes’s death looms, the farmer’s wife and their daughters learn there is another side to the sensational story they’ve heard.
This book is both tragic and beautiful which I suppose is some of the requirements to crafting a well-balanced historical literary fiction. In this book we are presented with an idea – the idea is the tell the story of a woman convicted for murder and executed and sort of tell her side of the story. The story is tell against the harshness of Iceland during the early 19th century and Kent really gives us a glimpse of the culture permeating these people in order to understand them better.
I will first state that there was not a character I disliked because Kent did such a great job of making them so tangible, rich and flawed. Our three main angles come from Agnes, whose death is the central idea of the book and she has a story to tell, one she was not allowed to tell in court or to others. The second is the view of Toti, a young assistant priest who Agnes has chosen to be her spiritual counselor during her last months on this earth. The final view is of Margret whose home Agnes is staying in until she is to be executed and is not happy to have a murderess in her home with her impressionable daughters.
This is a slow-moving book, quiet in its essence but it’s heartfelt and you truly feel as if you know most of the characters by the end. The story of what happened on the night of the murder slowly blossoms as Agnes tells bits of it to different people and to herself so the reader gets a deeper glance into her life before the night of the murder. Her story is tragic and I think that Kent made an honest and poignant case for how the station of a person and the circumstances of their birth can and will impact people in the future. Agnes was born out of wedlock and bounced from home to home after her mother abandoned her at age 6. She has no one in the world and she is smart – smarter than she should be and she desires better things for herself despite the world telling her she has no right to and this is used against her character. It’s a social critique but it was done very well and not ‘preachy’ at all, it flowed naturally with the story, allowing the reader to come to this conclusion on their own.
It is not a long book at all but it is heavy with meaning and thought so I would not consider this a light read.