Book Review: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

This book is inspired by real people and events. Agnes Magnusdottir really was found guilty of murder in 1820s Iceland and the author uses known facts about her life but the bulk of the novel is fiction as Kent uses her imagination to fill in the gaps. Agnes hasBURIAL-RITES been found guilty of murder and is awaiting the date of her execution. While this is arrange the authorities have to find somewhere to keep her and also ensure she has access to spiritual guidance. The novel covers the following months as she is kept in the home of a family and slowly tells her tale to a young priest. We follow events as they happen while also finding out about Agnes’ past as she recounts her experiences from childhood up to her arrest for murder. The setting is really interesting. You may find it strange that a criminal is sent to live in a family home! However it is established early in the novel that Iceland is an unindustrialised nation of small communities and doesn’t have the facilities or institutions other European nations might have had at this period to properly detain prisoners. The way the people in the novel live sounds medieval rather than nineteenth century, they are basically peasants living off the land – of course many British people of this time would have had a similar existence but there would also have been large towns with factories and big institutions that Iceland did not have, nor did British people have to battle with the weather to the same extent as the Icelanders. The setting is a long way from the drawing rooms and balls that would have featured in an Austen novel of this same period! The unfamiliar setting is a definite asset for the novel. The characters, family and servants, all pretty much live in a couple of rooms, they all sleep in one room. The novel is mostly set in mid-winter when it is so cold that it is dangerous to travel or really go out at all. So criminal, family and priest are pretty much stuck together making a claustrophobic and often tense atmosphere which works well for this story line.

The very bleak setting for the novel.

The very bleak setting for the novel.

Overall I liked this book very much. The story felt believable and the characters ‘real’.  Kent uses her imagination but doesn’t create a wildly over-the-top explanation as to why Agnes has found herself in such a terrible position, the tale she has concocted does feel like it could be true. What I didn’t always like was the writing style – Kent is a very descriptive writer, she can easily make a woman walking into the kitchen and getting a bowl of soup to eat last 4 or 5 pages! She likes to describe everything from the woman’s dirty finger nails to the smear of grease on the side of the saucepan to the slurping sound of the woman eating the soup – nothing wrong in this it’s just not to my taste. I particularly didn’t like the way Kent was constantly describing bodily functions! People seemed to constantly sweat, spit, chew, slurp, dribble, cough, vomit, wee, poo, sneeze etc. I know these things happen I just don’t like to be constantly reminded. I imagined the one room where everyone slept to be filled with bad smells and the sound of liquid noises – yuk! . A great story and well written (even if the writing wasn’t always to my taste) 4/5

Zoe

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Filed under Book Review, books, Crime, Historical novel

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