Review: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

“‘It’s not fair. People claim to know you through the things you’ve done, and not by sitting down and listening to you speak for yourself. No matter how much you try to live a godly life, if you make a mistake in this valley, it’s never forgotten. No matter if you tried to do what was best.’”

Burial Rites is historical fiction and follows Iceland’s last execution of Agnes Magnúsdóttir in 1829. Agnes has been convincted of murdering two men and is sentenced to death. While she awaits her execution, she is sent to work on an isolated family farm. Agnes has an unexpected effect on the family while she stays.

Burial Rites is very dark, but beautifully and hauntingly written. I’ve never read anything set in Iceland before, and enjoyed learning about the area and time period. This is different from a lot that I’ve read recently because from the beginning, you know what’s going to happen—Agnes is going to die. The real tension in the book is between the family, servants, and priest on the farm where Agnes resides as she awaits her impending death. There’s also the mystery of what happened that night of the two murders, and what Agnes’s role in the deaths really was.

The characters make the story. Agnes’s backstory is heartbreaking and makes her feel real. Kent made me feel sympathy for Agnes despite her murder charge.  

There are a lot of questions in this book of justice and right versus wrong. Who gets to decide when someone deserves to die? Are some people’s words more valuable than others? This can be read as an examination of the death penalty in its most ancient and barbaric forms.

Religion’s role in justice is also a prevailing theme of the book, and something I found interesting. Agnes is assigned a priest to help her find achieve absolution with God before she is executed. Agnes resists by not repenting and, slowly, begins talking as an equal with the priest. Something Agnes repeatedly questions is why she has to ask for forgiveness to a God who is allowing her to be executed.

I love historical fiction that shows the discrepancies in class, and there is a very clear class divide in this era of Iceland. Agnes is not only a murderer, but a servant accused of killing her master, which adds a level of certain guilt in the rest of society’s eyes. When she first arrives at the farm, the entire family is disgusted by her. Agnes is gradually accepted by the family despite her class and status as a convicted criminal.  

Definitely check out this fantastic debut!

VERDICT: 4 out of 5 books

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