In brief: Agnes is condemned to death after her role in a double murder in Iceland in 1829. This is her story as she waits for death.
The good: Very well researched with beautiful prose
The not-so-good: Found it a little hard to keep track of the Icelandic names and places, quite slow moving
Why I chose it: Won a competition from Readings Books – thank you!
Pages: 338 (ARC)
My rating: 7.5 out of 10
There has been a lot of hype regarding Burial Rites in Australia since its release. The author, Hannah Kent, has been on television and I’ve read several articles about her and the book in the media. So when I came to sit down and read this book, I already knew quite a lot about it. I knew that Kent is Australian, but had been on exchange to Iceland and I knew that the book was based on a true story. I also knew about the rave reviews this book was getting around the world. I’m thinking now that perhaps I knew too much… While Burial Rites was an incredible debut novel, the story didn’t have the drama for me that others had mentioned. It was interesting, but still easy to put down and go to sleep. I didn’t live and breathe this book while reading it – perhaps it is a victim of too many good books at once.
Kudos must be given to Kent for making Iceland come alive. Although it suddenly seems to be appearing on everyone’s must-travel list, Iceland is generally not that well known in Australia except for the fact there’s…um, ice and snow and Northern Lights. Kent shows the reader an Iceland rich in heritage and language. The Icelandic names of people and places did cause some confusion initially, but I did understand eventually. I did have to Google ‘badstofa’ (to me, it sounded like a room where you put your no-longer-best lounge suite) – I think a footnote could have been useful as it’s referred to so often. Not having read any other historical novels based in Iceland, I didn’t have anything to compare to for accuracy but I think Kent has done a great job with the research.
As for the plot, filling in the gaps on a real historical figure (Agnes was the last woman to be hanged in Iceland) and events is a big task for any writer. Again, I think Kent has done this remarkably well. The story flows well, even if it is rather slow moving. Agnes is condemned to death, living out her last days on a farm where she is initially treated with suspicion, then gradually accepted. She has allegedly murdered two men with another man and woman and then torched the house. As the story continues and Agnes begins to reveal herself to the priest assigned to ensure she atones, we find out the background behind the events. It’s a story of twisted personalities, cruelty and lies. In a bitter blow to Agnes, she finds the other woman has had her sentence reduced to imprisonment. How much was Agnes involved in the murders? Is the country killing an innocent woman?
I didn’t feel the tension in the novel as Agnes comes closer to hanging, perhaps because I knew the ending before I read the book. The events that led to the murders were cruel but the acceptance of Agnes by Margret’s family somewhat redeems Agnes in the readers’ eyes, especially when she supports them during times of illness. Agnes’ background is also cleverly painted by Kent to demonstrate the numerous hardships in her life and it’s difficult not to feel sorry for her. However, I didn’t feel a connection with the other characters besides Agnes – I didn’t feel that they were as elegantly drawn and lacked detail. Perhaps that is because of the first person insights into Agnes’ mind, perhaps due to the amount of research done regarding Agnes.
Although the story was not to my tastes, Kent has remarkable skill as a writer. Her prose is beautiful and she captures the haunting beauty of the setting. I’d like to read her next book – but I’ll steer clear of publicity so I don’t know the ending beforehand.