Burial Rites

by Hannah Kent

(author’s website:

This is my second review for the Aussie Author Challenge 2015 (the first can be found here).

From the back cover:

“In northern Iceland, 1829, Agnes Magnúsdóttir is condemned to death for her part in the brutal murder of two men.

Agnes is sent to wait out the time leading to her execution on the farm of District Officer Jón Jónnson, his wife and their two daughters. Horrified to have a convicted murderess in their midst, the family avoids speaking with Agnes. Only Tóti, the young assistant reverend appointed as Agnes’s spiritual guardian, is compelled to try to understand her, as he attempts to salvage her soul. As the summer months fall away to winter and the hardships of rural life force the household to work side by side, Agnes’s ill-fated tale of longing and betrayal begins to emerge. And as the days to her execution draw closer, the question burns: did she or didn’t she?

Based on a true story, ‘Burial Rites’ is a deeply moving novel about personal freedom: who we are seen to be versus who we believe ourselves to be, and the ways in which we will risk everything for love. In beautiful, cut-glass prose, Hannah Kent portrays Iceland’s formidable landscape, where every day is a battle for survival, and asks, how can one woman hope to endure when her life depends upon the stories told by others?

Burial Rites is beautifully written, and evokes the ethereal and powerful landscape and weather of northern Iceland in a simple but incredibly visual way. An example:

“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. We saw one another through the fog, the suffocating repetition of life” (p. 218).

One of the strongest aspects of the book is in showing how the landscape and seasons dictated rural life in 19th century Iceland. One of the most frightening examples is that during the dead of winter no-one can leave a remote farmstead as they will die of exposure before reaching another settlement. It was actually quite shocking for me to realise how people throughout history have spent large parts of their lives effectively trapped together due to nothing more than the weather. It is during winter that some of the defining moments of Agnes’ life happen; the death of her foster mother, the murder of Natan and Petur, and her retelling of her life to Tóti and the Jónnson family.

The novel is based on what is known of the actual Agnes Magnúsdóttir, who was the last person executed in Iceland. There is a reassuring amount of (translated) original documents throughout the text which makes the story feel like it could actually have taken place, and isn’t just some author’s flight of fancy where they’ve taken a few names or dates and then completely made up the rest (I hate those sort of historical novels). The author’s note at the end also indicates how much research Kent has carried out, which I think really shows throughout the book (although I’m certainly no 19th century Iceland expert).

This is not a love story, but is a story about relationships. Personally, I found the love story aspect the weakest part of the story (but love stories usually bore me anyway, so I’m probably not the best judge) but it is the reason that Agnes ends up on trial so I guess it has to be there. The other relationships however are wonderful, particularly that which develops between Agnes and Magrét, the mistress of the farmstead where Agnes is kept until her execution. The claustrophobic nature of rural Iceland is also apparent in the relationships of its residents, it is such a small community that everyone know everyone, or at least they think they do. Burial Rites shares a very similar concept with Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood, which is a fictionalised account of a female servant who is accused of murdering her employer in a rural 19th century setting, if you like one book then you’ll probably like the other.

This review was written while listening to Sigur Rós’ Takk… as it seemed appropriate 🙂

The Glósóli video clip shows some of Iceland’s amazing scenery:


Burial Rites fulfils the #female author, #fiction book, and #author new-to-me criteria of the Aussie Author Challenge 2015.

So far I have read:

2 books by a female author

1 non-fiction book

1 fiction book

2 books by an author who is new-to-me

1 book published in 2014 or 2015


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