Burial Rites is Hannah Kent’s debut novel, it was featured as one of the Waterstones Eleven titles last year and therefore has received great and varied attention in literary circles. As usual I was initially drawn-in by the cover design; the stark but beautiful contrast of the white dust jacket to the black-edged pages is startling and almost impossible to resist. Thankfully, I believe the content lives up to its packaging.
Burial Rites tells the true story of the last execution to take place in Iceland (1829), that of Agnes Magnusdottir, accused of the bloody murder of two men. It is told from multiple perspectives but mainly that of Agnes and the priest (Toti) who has been enlisted to guide and prepare Agnes for meeting her maker. The narrative is simplistic but rightly so. Kent’s research was of course extremely thorough and the truth of the events which (most likely) occurred, written into eloquent prose is all that was needed to create a novel with real punch. As with many of the most memorable persecutions in history, Agnes is not all that she is perceived as and I definitely enjoyed figuring out who she was for myself.
Although the narrative felt a little slow moving at times, switching between real-time, flash-backs and dreams keeps you on your toes as a reader. I very much enjoyed the frequent inserts of Icelandic myth and song, it was a great way to fully immerse in the culture which in turn gave me a better understanding of many aspects of the tale, from character motive to the intensity of the climate, I found it very atmospheric.
This is not a long, drawn out history lesson, nor is it fast-paced action. It is simply the story of a woman who lost her way and the people who must ease her along that sad and lonely path.