Monday, November 11, 2013

ESCAPE TO THE PAST WITH: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent has been receiving wonderful reviews and the plot summary made it irresistible, if a little daunting. As added encouragement, during a quick, curious perusal of the 2013 Best Historical Fiction Good Choice Awards on goodreads, I noticed it was one of the picks. I’ve only read a couple of the nominees: The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan and Z. A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler. And I have A Hundred Summers by Beatriz Williams next on my list since it, like Burial Rites, is a library book that can’t be renewed. I won’t vote because I can’t even choose a favorite from among the books I have read and don’t think it would be fair to exclude the ones I haven’t. But I’m pleased to have this list of recommended historical fiction!

Burial Rites is a gorgeous but dark story of the last person to be publicly beheaded in Iceland–an execution that took place in the early 1800s. The historical details are meticulously researched, but the woman’s thoughts, words, and, of course, the motivation for her crimes are fictionalized. It is beautifully done. The setting is cold and merciless. The grinding poverty and barrenness of the life of Agnes Magnusdottir (or Agnes Jonsdottir–the unfortunate woman is not even granted the dignity of a solid identity) makes for a relentlessly cruel story. We know she is condemned to die. She knows she is condemned to die. After all, she is a convicted murderess.

Agnes, along with two fellow servants, has been found guilty of murdering her master and his guest and then burning down his farm to hide the crime. She is sentenced to be executed, but while awaiting confirmation of the sentence, she is sent to an isolated farm in northern Iceland, essentially to be warehoused.

Margret and Jon are the unfortunate couple chosen to be her warders. They don’t want the burden or responsibility, especially since they have two daughters. It isn’t safe to house a murderess, nor do they want their daughters exposed to her influence. But when Agnes arrives–withdrawn, frightened, angry– she is not what they expected. She’s a hard worker. She’s knowledgeable. She’s kind. Agnes is not inclined to talk about what has happened, nor would the family ask. However, a local priest, Toti, has been chosen to be her spiritual advisor, and he coaxes words from her. Eventually, they–and the reader–learn the truth of Agnes’s life and of the two men’s deaths.

Does it matter that she has a chance to speak? Does it matter that the truth is told? With all the rumors that have defined her life, will it make a difference to her that someone hears her side? It’s a brutally harsh book and it could be argued both ways. Agnes never stood a chance. But this is a beautiful story about compassion. Maybe Agnes’s story makes a difference in the lives of her warders. Maybe books like this make readers think a little more deeply. I’ll certainly be looking for Hannah Kent’s next book.

This book is a historical fiction challenge book. The challenge is hosted by Historical Tapestry.


  1. I'm looking forward to reading this one -- everyone seems to love it!

  2. As soon as I heard about this book I knew I had to read it. My book club is going to read it in 2014 and I can't wait. Thanks for the review. It has heightened my anticipation!

  3. I've heard so much about this one too. I really want to read it too. One of our local bookstores had a copy propped up at the front with a handwritten sign saying "Margaret can't recommend this HIGHLY ENOUGH!" It's been a remarkable success for a debut novel from a young Aussie.