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.
"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.