Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

burial rites“The quality of mercy…”

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Publication Due 29th August 2013

Haunting and heartbreaking, this is the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, condemned to die for her part in the murder of two men, one her lover. While waiting for the date of execution to be set, Agnes is put into the custody of Jón and Margrét Jónsson and, at Agnes’ request, a young priest, Reverend Tóti, is given the task of preparing Agnes spiritually for her death. At first the family are horrified to have a murderess amongst them, Margrét fearing for the safety and moral well-being of her own two daughters Lauga and Steina, while Tóti doubts his own experience and ability to help Agnes find some kind of repentance and acceptance. But as summer fades into the long, harsh winter, Agnes gradually breaks her silence and begins to reveal her story of what led to that night…

“The weight of his fingers on mine, like a bird landing on a branch. It was the drop of the match. I did not see that we were surrounded by tinder until I felt it burst into flames.”

Set in Iceland in 1829, the book is a fictionalized account of a true story. The writing is excellent and the author has clearly researched both Agnes’ story and Icelandic culture of the time thoroughly. The characterization is very strong, especially of the three main characters. We see Tóti’s struggle to overcome his own feelings, initially of repugnance, but later of inadequacy and guilt as he begins to feel attracted to Agnes. Margrét is stern and determined to protect her family, but as she comes to know Agnes better her innate fair-mindedness begins to see that things are not as black and white as she had thought. And the complex character of Agnes remains ambiguous throughout – sometimes she earns our sympathy, pity even, but the crime is always there to make us think there is another side to her. Mostly told as a third-person narrative, there are also first-person sections that let the reader see some of the thoughts and memories Agnes is holding back from the other characters.

“In those early visits it was as though we were building something sacred. We’d place words carefully together, piling them upon one another, leaving no spaces. We each created towers, two beacons, the like of which are built along roads to guide the way when the weather comes down.”

Hannah Kent
Hannah Kent

Kent paints extraordinary pictures with her words. She brings the harsh Icelandic environment vividly to life – the relentless struggle to scrape an existence out of the land, the constant presence and threat of extreme weather. And she shows us the isolated and claustrophobic way of life, where old superstitions still persist in spite of the strict enforcement of religion; and where all members of a household, master and servant, share a communal living space in farms which may be cut off from even their nearest neighbours for days or weeks at a time. She weaves these things so naturally through the story that there is never a feeling of being ‘told’ about them – rather she writes as if these things will be familiar to the reader, and gradually they become so.

“Already the mountain grass is fading to the colour of smoked meat, and the evenings smell of burning fish oil from lamps newly lit. At Illugastadir there will soon be a prickle of frost over the seaweed thrown upon the shore. The seals will be banked upon the tongues of rock, watching winter descend from the mountain.”

I loved the style of writing from the first pages, and as I got drawn more into the characters and the culture, I found this became an intensely moving book, never sentimental, never taking the easy option, never telling the reader what to think or feel. To call this a stunning debut is almost to insult it – this is a more compelling and assured book than most writers ever achieve. Highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

57 thoughts on “Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

  1. Another great review. You made the professor want to read this! But you never said if she gets executed and how she gets it… The chop?

    One can’t help but notice that the author spelled ‘color’ wrong…


  2. I’m always fascinated by stories in which the facts may be a certain way but the case and characters are not what you’d call black and white at all. Add to that a well-researched historical context and you’ve got my interest! Thanks for a fine review.


    • Oh, I hope you enjoy it! I’m pretty sure you will. She’s an amazing writer, especially for one so young. I’m incredibly jealous of her actually… 😉


        • Oh, no! I’m afraid I have no creativity at all. That’s why I’m jealous! I’d have loved to be a writer but just don’t have the talent or imagination. 😦


          • You are just NOT ALLOWED to continually publish these untruths: vis – “I have no creativity at all” We will start giving you BAD MARKS each time you say such a thing.

            Please go to the naughty corner and write out, 500 times ‘I must not lie and say I am not creative’ BAD FF No chocolate for YOU today.

            PS not been approved for this yet, I will have to part from the well earned pennies and (shudders faintly) buy the thing when released.

            I DO buy books, I’ve bought 5 or so in the last week – hence the rising pile – and a paper copy of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn are amongst them, thanks to your and the Prof’s Twain conversations.


            • Haha! When I write my first book (an illustrated guide to tennis shorts down the ages) will you be my agent?

              Don’t buy it till Thursday – I got it via Vine and I don’t think they’ve all gone, so it should be either on the newsletter or move to Last Harvest, I think.

              Did you notice that Matt is also touting Huck Finn as The Great American Novel of all time? You’re one of the ones who reads far, far more than me – you must average 3 or 4 a week?


            • Well don’t forget i travel on public transport – what better way to escape half hour journeys on buses and tubes than buried deep in a book

              And of course, it does depend on the book doesn’t it – remember i was reading Life and Fate for WEEKS, sobbing violently about the wickedness of human nature all the time.

              Other stuff can be galloped through – the Gaiman, which i adored was zipped through in a day or so (true can’t turn the light out till I’ve finished another chapter stuff)

              Okay will keep my eyes Vined – afraid I got another weep forever real life war experience book from harvest and…a carton of Japanese soya milk! Well, as a soya milk consumer, why not. As long as i don’t spill it over the book.


            • Yes, I vividly remember the months of agony it took to get through War and Peace – in fact, I remember a rather rude new Viner commenting that I seemed to have been reading it for years!


            • I agree totally with the Lady. Definitely bad marks from now on. It just shan’t be tolerated, young lady!

              And Matt is speaking the truth. No more of this Gatsby junk, you hear? Or a ripping will be on it’s way–and a fierce one at that!

              Lady: I’m proud of you! I have a list of Twain books yet to buy… More important than chocolate, and more important than Darby…

              (Did you know Twain wrote a lot of mysteries towards the end of his life? One featured…Sherlock Holmes–the western version. Don’t say anything!)


            • Gatsby has gone to the top of my already wobbly pile of books to re-read which I have already re-read pile. Professor, we will strip you of your degree forthwith if you persist in insulting Scott F and that wonderful man with the deerstalker, violin and cocaine.

              PS NOTHING is more important than chocolate


            • I don’t believe you! Do I?? Maybe I do… Tell me!!

              I’d just like to point out the original SH was Western – I just had a sudden image of him dressed like Fu Manchu…

              That does it! I’m going to write a book just to prove you both wrong! And I’m going to make you both review it… 😉


            • Ladies: you are both getting out of hand!

              Lady, you must bring the Gatsby down at once and replace it with a Twain–any Twain. Once I re-read the Gatsby, I think I shall rip it!

              I think Doyle was the one that liked cocaine…

              FF, you should believe the professor. He doesn’t lie, remember? The novel is: A Double Barrrelled Detective Story. No doubt, Twain was ripping Doyle too! 😉

              Prove the professor wrong, how?


            • Ooh, another 2 hours of The Enlightenment or a SH spoof? Tricky decision…but maybe I should wait till I read Huck Finn in case the SH makes me want to beat him over the head etc etc. 😉

              Prove the professor wrong by forcing him to read my ‘creative’ writing! (Don’t worry – it doesn’t really exist!)


            • I could only imagine how the professor would be ripped for his writing. Even possibly beat over the head with the femur… He’s definitely set himself up for it…

              But you know, you might be quite creative when it comes to shorts…


            • You should finish your book someday and then we could find out… 😀

              Yes, I definitely think a book on tennis shorts is long overdue…starting with McEnroe and ending with Rafa…


  3. Thought this sounded interesting, so went to buy it on Kindle – it isn’t out for another three weeks. Oh, well maybe by then I’ll have reduced my TBR list enough to have time to read it.


  4. I’ve just been reading about this and wondering if I have a strong enough stomach to cope with the possibility of injustice which always gets me incensed. The Bears keep telling me to remember it’s only fiction, but somehow that never makes a difference.


  5. Burial Rites is my pick of the bunch for 2013 – a truly astounding, beautiful book.

    What I really enjoy is the fact that for every review I’ve read, the reviewer has picked out different quotes to ones I’ve read in other reviews – doesn’t that speak volumes about the brilliance of Kent’s writing? I actually had to stop myself highlighting passages, or the whole book would have been underlined.


    • I loved it – it only got very narrowly beaten for my favourite crime book of 2013 by William McIlvanney’s ‘Laidlaw’ which, although it’s over thirty years old, I’d never read before. It was a toss-up for me though whether to class it as ‘crime’ or as ‘literary fiction’ – it was both really. Like you, I thought the language was wonderful, and the way she built up the picture of living with the extreme weather was so skilful. Can’t wait to see what her next book is like.


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