Book Review: Burial Rites, by Hannah Kent

Agnes Magnusdottir, along with two others, has been accused of murdering two men and setting fire to their house. Awaiting execution, she is sent to work on a distant farm. The family there shuns her--who wants to house an accused murderess?--speaking to her only as much as is required to complete household chores. The only confidant she has is Toti, an assistant priest Agnes has requested as her spiritual guardian prior to her execution.

Small spaces and the harsh weather of Iceland, however, drive the family and Toti and Agnes physically and emotionally closer together over the months Agnes stays with them. Agnes helps deliver a baby, she cures a cough, and slowly, the family warms to her. As they grow closer, Agnes reveals bits and pieces of her story--a story very different from that of both the courts and the gossips of the Icelandic valley in which they live.

Burial Rites is based on true events: Agnes Magnusdottir was the last person to be executed in Iceland, after being accused of killing her master and another man in cold blood in 1828. The history books offer skeletal facts about Agnes' life and the crimes for which she was condemned, and in Burial Rites, Hannah Kent sought to offer a more "ambiguous portrayal of this woman."

Kent has succeeded--and then some. While some of the secondary characters in Burial Rites feel only partially formed--the two sisters on the farm where Agnes stays, for example, even the man she is accused of killing--the debut novel is a stunning psychological portrayal of Agnes, whose story dominates its pages.

Agnes' tale forces readers to contemplate what happens when one's fate is molded by the stories others tell of you; the District Commissioner says you are cunning and clever, and more than capable of pressing others into murder; the valley gossips say you are the daughter of a whore, never knowing or accepting her place in society; the witnesses called in court say you are of questionable morals. But the Agnes that lives inside her own head is none of these people:
"I remain quiet. I am determined to close myself to the world, to tighten my heart and hold onto what has not yet been stolen from me....They will see the whore, the madwoman, the murderess, the female dripping blood into the grass and laughing with her mouth choked with dirt. They will say 'Agnes' and see the spider, the witch caught in the webbing of her own fateful weaving. They might see the lamb circled by ravens, bleating for a lost mother. But they will not see me. I will not be there."
The truth, Agnes argues, is that she was doomed from the start. Alone, with no one to counsel her, her life is defined by others' opinions of her. As an intelligent woman, she is a threat; the townspeople and the court "believe a thinking woman cannot be trusted. Believe there's no room for innocence."

But "room for innocence" is exactly what Kent develops in Burial Rites, alongside a detailed portrayal of the dark, cold landscape of Iceland and its shifting culture in the early 19th century. The question of guilt and blame and personality is what makes the story compelling to the last, culminating in a heartbreaking scene of life and death.


Thanks to the publisher for providing a galley of this title for review.
Burial Rites | Hannah Kent | Little, Brown & Co | September | Hardcover | 336 pages


  1. I've heard so many good things about this one, it's definitely on my want list.

    1. I really enjoyed it. If you'd like my galley, I'm happy to send along!

  2. Kerry, you make me want to read ALL the books. I'm going to have to read this book just because I want to know what the "heartbreaking scene of life and death" is!

    1. Why thank you! I take that as a compliment :-)


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