September 9, 2013

They Will Not See Me

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Release Date: September 10, 2013
Publisher: Little, Brown
Pages: 336 pages
Source & Format: NetGalley; e-ARC
Amazon | Goodreads

Summary (from Goodreads)
Set against Iceland's stark landscape, Hannah Kent brings to vivid life the story of Agnes, who, charged with the brutal murder of her former master, is sent to an isolated farm to await execution.

Horrified at the prospect of housing a convicted murderer, the family at first avoids Agnes. Only Tóti, a priest Agnes has mysteriously chosen to be her spiritual guardian, seeks to understand her. But as Agnes's death looms, the farmer's wife and their daughters learn there is another side to the sensational story they've heard.

Riveting and rich with lyricism, Burial Rites evokes a dramatic existence in a distant time and place, and asks the question, how can one woman hope to endure when her life depends upon the stories told by others?

Thoughts on Burial Rites
How do I even begin to describe my love for this book? From the stunning cover to the gorgeous prose inside, I love everything about Burial Rites. Hannah Kent's debut novel is a work of fiction, but it is based on real events. It is stunning, moving, and without a doubt, one of the best things I've read in a long time and certainly a favorite of this year. It deserves all the praise it's been getting and more.

Burial Rites is the story of Agnes Mangúsdóttir - a woman convicted of murder in Iceland in the 1820s. She is sentenced to death, and she is sent to an isolated farm to live with a family there and await her execution. The family is horrified about housing her, but there are no jails in Iceland and they cannot refuse the District Commissioner. But that doesn't mean they have to be kind to her. The only person who listens to her - who wants to hear her story - is Tóti, the priest Agnes has chosen to be her spiritual guardian.

Each chapter opens with an item - a letter, a public notice, a legal document - related to Agnes or her case. It provides a unique perspective and a wider view of everything that's going on. Most of the book is in third-person and focuses on the people around Agnes (the family housing her and the priest charged with leading her to repentance). There are also shifts to first person when you get to hear from Agnes. Her thoughts are sharp, brittle, and shadowed. Agnes is an enigma, and her own thoughts don't do much to bring light to her past. But oh, they're so incredibly evocative.

Consider this passage:
"I remain quiet. I am determined to close myself to the world, to tighten my heart and hold what has not yet been stolen from me. I cannot let myself slip away. I will hold what I am inside, and keep my hands tight around all the things I have seen and heard, and felt. The poems composed as I washed and scythed and cooked until my hands were raw. The sagas I know by heart. I am sinking all I have left and going underwater. If I speak, it will be bubbles of air. They will not be able to keep my words for themselves. 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."
Agnes is accused with two of people of killing her former master by beating him, stabbing him, and then setting his house on fire. Agnes' story pierced my heart much like her knife supposedly pierced his. Her story got under my skin and into my thoughts. I was eating and breathing this book during the two days it took me to read it. Every spare moment had me flipping open my Kindle, sneaking bits and pieces whenever possible.

This isn't a happy book, and it won't sweep you away with the drama. But it's a haunting story. The setting is bleak, isolated, lonely and desolate... much like Agnes' future. Kent has painted a picture of Iceland that makes you feel as though you're there. The setting is the perfect reflection of Agnes' desperation. But there's also this quiet hope, this yearning for the truth, and this desire to be understood. To be known.

At its heart, this book is about the difference between who a person is and what they have done. It's about how a person's whole identity can be dictated by stories told by others and how every story has two sides. Agnes is not a perfect woman, but is she as bad as they say? Where do the stories end and where does the truth begin? The questions this book wrestles with are central to the story but also applicable even to the world we live in today.

I was enthralled - hanging on every one of Kent's words. I honestly cannot believe that she's only twenty-eight, and the fact that she's from Australia has me further convinced that there must be something in the water over there. How do they keep producing such incredible authors? Her writing is lyrical and poetic, and it's the kind of book you want to listen to or read aloud to fully appreciate its beauty.

I feel like I haven't even done this book justice. It's dark and rich - a story that will leave you aching inside. I couldn't pick up anything for several days after closing the final page. My mind just wanted to keep turning over what I'd read. If you're a fan of adult fiction, this is a book that MUST be on your reading list. I haven't read anything quite like it before, and it makes me so incredibly excited about Kent's future. I've already pre-ordered a copy of Burial Rites because it's something that I have to own so I can return to it again and again... and I have a feeling I'll be doing that often. I loved it that much! Burial Rites is a moving, lyrical debut that will impress you with its depth and beauty.

So Quotable
"God has had His chance to free me, and for reasons known to Him alone, He has pinned me to ill fortune, and although I have struggled, I am run through and through with disaster; I am knifed to the hilt with fate."

"To know what a person has done, and to know who a person is, are very different things."

*I received a copy of this book from Little, Brown in exchange for an honest review. I was not compensated in any way for this review.

8 comments:

  1. Wow. That's honestly the first (and only) thing I could think of after completing your review. I admittedly had heard very little about Burial Rites prior to your post, but it's certainly on my radar now! I find I've been reading far more adult literature this year, and for the most part my experience has been wholly positive. As much as I adore the young adult genre, this sort of novel is a welcome change of pace and I find often inspires more reflection after I've finished reading it. The mystery aspect (i.e. Whether or not Agnes is truly guilty of what she's accused of and what the circumstances surrounding the crime were) remind me a little of Gillian Flynn's work, which I've been devouring lately and will soon run out of :( You've definitely convinced me to pick up a copy of Burial Rites and I'll be keeping my eye out for it the next time I'm in the bookstore!

    This was an absolutely beautiful and insightful review, Hannah, and I can only hope the novel will be half as lovely :)

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    1. Oh Jen. Thank you so much! You have no idea how much this comment means to me. I'm so happy that I got to introduce you to this book and that I've helped convince you to read it. I love young adult, too, but there's just something about adult reads for me. I just fall in love with them in a way I don't necessarily do with YA! I certainly still love a lot of YA books, but most of my favorite reads from this year have been adult.

      I will keep an eye for your review should you read it in the future! And thanks again for such a lovely comment :)

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  2. Hannah, this book sounds absolutely fantastic. I first heard of it a few months ago and was immediately intrigued, and now your review has solidified my desire to read this very soon. It sounds very powerful, very mature, very thought-provoking. And it's about a time period and place I really don't know much about.
    And wow is that first quote powerful!
    Reading this soon will come at a perfect time for me, too, as lately I've been on an adult historical fiction fix. :) Absolutely lovely review! It sounds like you've done justice to this book for sure.

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    1. I was intrigued when I heard of this book, too, and I was so happy when it more than lived up to my expectations. It's definitely all of the above - powerful and thought-provoking - a book I was thinking about long after I turned the last page. I didn't know much about this time or place, so that made me love this one even more.

      Isn't that quote just THE BEST? Gosh. I adored it.

      Yay for an adult historical fiction spree! And thanks for the kind words about my review - glad you feel I did the book justice. :)

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  3. Not gonna lie. I skimmed your review because I know you raved about this book and need to read it really soon! I might load it on my kindle and read it on the way to Europe! Make the plane ride go by quickly :)

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    1. Oh my goodness, you totally need to read it! It's probably kind of different from what you'd typically read but gosh, K, it's so good. I just loveeeeed it. It was sad and somber but so moving. Just got down into my heart!

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  4. This book sounds incredibly intense! It seems to be the kind of book that would keep me asking questions, and wondering things, and I really like that. Plus, I think I'd like to read about Agnes. She seems like a character who's hard to understand, but in a way that makes you want to understand her even more (if that even makes sense).

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    1. Yes, it was intense but not in like a fast-paced or dramatic way. But it definitely had me wondering what was going on and dying for more information. You're totally right about Agnes! She's hard to understand, but that just makes you all the more intrigued by her.

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