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Burial Rites
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224 of 233 people found the following review helpful
on May 16, 2013
There has been a great deal of publicity surrounding this book, the meticulously researched fictionalised account of the events leading up to the execution of Agnes Magnusdottir - the last woman to be executed in Iceland and so I began the book with high expectations. They were surpassed. From the first page I was transported to a different place and time and I became oblivious to everything around me. ended up staying up nearly all night to finish this book not because it is full of suspense but because I was "there" with the characters and did not want to / in fact could not leave them. The writing is beautiful,the research fantastic. - I am recommending it to all my family and friends.
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137 of 142 people found the following review helpful
on April 24, 2013
Based on the tragic and harrowing story of Agnes Magnusdottir the last woman executed in Iceland in the early 1800's. It's a deeply moving account of Agnes a workmaid, and her two co-accused who were sentenced to death for the brutal murder of two men. One her lover and master.

Awaiting her execution, Agnes is sent to the small and isolated holding of Jon Jonsson a District Officer and his family to await her execution. Spiritual salvation is delivered by the young and untried Assistant Reverent Toti who is appointed by the court after Agnes requests his services. During her time with Toti, Agnes tells of her life leading up to the murder through a series of flashbacks.

Agnes herself comes alive as a compelling character and has a quiet dignity. Abandoned by her mother and fostered out to various families until she becomes an almost nomadic servant who travels from each isolated holding looking to make ends meet. It is a grim and gritty existence. Agnes wants to be loved and falls into the mistaken belief that the love she felt for the murdered Natan will be returned.

It took me some time to sort out the characters and familiarize myself with the names, but once that was established it was very easy to fall into this mesmerising and evocative story. The writing style is almost lyrical and a picture of Iceland, the judical system and living conditions are vividly brought to life on the page. A time steeped in paganism, premonitions, dreams, sagas and a struggle to survive.

It's an emotionally draining and compelling novel, that has a very genuine feel for time and place. The claustrophic and dirt packed squalor of the crofts, the isolation and characters allow the reader to glimpse a time past.

A beautifully rendered and powerful story, lovingly delivered on the page.
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88 of 98 people found the following review helpful
on May 10, 2013
Did not put book down until I finished it. I could feel, taste, smell the scenes and characters. I lived it through to the end. It left me more aware than ever of the elusive nature of truth and memory depending on perspective and how easy it is to judge and feel we know another when often it so hard to know or understand ourselves accurately.
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74 of 82 people found the following review helpful
on September 18, 2013
Burial Rites is a welcome rarity in that equal value is given to literary merit as storytelling. Unfortunately, Agnes's developing relationship with her jailer family is unconvincing, as is her friendship with the Reverend Toti. Her willingness to ignore warning signals about Natan is a bit too convenient.

The dialogue lacks confidence and there is a fair amount of head-hopping between characters, as well as a tendency to "tell" over showing, ie "Agnes was angry." Towards the end of the book, the narrative becomes a lengthy info dump; once it is finished, the end is hastily delivered. Agnes's actions in the lead up to the murder were for me, quite implausible.

For all of that, the descriptive passages are beautifully executed. Burial Rites has many strengths, among them, its imagery and prose which is often wonderful. Author Hannah Kent's vivid evocation of the landscape and the times is harrowing and haunting. Agnes's first person narrative is unfailingly moving.

Burial Rites is a very worthwhile read and I'll be looking out for future works by the author.
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43 of 49 people found the following review helpful
on April 24, 2013
Even knowing the obvious outcome, this masterful book kept me on the edge of my seat. Unable to put it down, I have devoured it in less than 24 hours (including sleep, a three hour walk and 4 hours of driving)!!
Congratulations Hannah!!
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34 of 40 people found the following review helpful
on August 7, 2013
An absorbing and affecting book, Burial Rites tells the haunting tale of the last woman executed in Iceland. Awaiting this fate, she is billeted with an unwilling family, and in the end her plight touches them all. This is no story of pure innocence or victimisation, but one that explores the way a community's experience of the whole narrative—the woman's love affair, background cruelty, the crime, then her extended wait for death—makes them reject the process of capital punishment, and deeply regret its outcome. In such a small cold community, nobody can escape the ordeal of learning.

As a novel, this is flawed—the main character is difficult to like, the opening paragraphs were confusing as to who was whom, I wanted more powerful characterisation and greater exploration of the relationship between the convicted woman and the religious man who comes to guide her toward Godly death—but these are fairly minor qualms. It's an ordeal to read, but a gripping one, and perhaps even a necessary one.
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22 of 26 people found the following review helpful
on January 7, 2014
I've never known a book with such poorly-realized characters to affect me so much. There will be SPOILERS below: it's hard to spoil a book when the jacket copy tells you the ending, but I do my best.

Burial Rites is a novel, based on a true story, about a woman awaiting execution. It's set in Iceland in 1829, which means it's always freezing and people live in squalid conditions and struggle to survive. It also means there are no jails, so after Agnes is convicted of murder, she's sent to live with a family as their servant while waiting to be beheaded. The family is understandably unhappy about this situation, especially since, as is typical, they and their servants all live and sleep together in one room. There's also the timid reverend, Toti, who is supposed to harangue Agnes into repentance but mostly just asks questions about her past. Naturally, much of the novel is spent in flashback, as we learn about Agnes's hard life and the events leading up to the crime.

Certainly a bleak story, but my primary problem is with the characters and their relationships: alternately inconsistent, unconvincing, and bland. For instance, take this exchange between Toti and a messenger:

" `When he finished Blondal's letter, he looked up and noticed the servant watching him. `Well?' the servant prompted, with a raised eyebrow.
" `I beg your pardon?'
" `Your response for the District Commissioner? I don't have all day.'
" `May I talk with my father?'
"The servant sighed. `Go on, then.'"

That's how a servant behaves toward an (assistant) reverend? Really? Or take the scene where the District Commissioner himself appears at the family's home. The older daughter, Steina, has just been established as a cripplingly shy young woman of limited faculties. Then suddenly, she is backtalking the distinguished visitor as sharply and nimbly as many a Spunky Heroine. And don't ask me where that comes from, because she never does it again. There are too many moments like this, when character motivation or disposition inexplicably goes missing, such that I never formed a true picture of who these people are.

And then there's Agnes. For the first 70 or so pages, we don't know who she is; she's been mistreated and dehumanized to the point that she barely knows who she is, and I found myself caring about her just because her situation is so awful. Once she regains some dignity, though, I started to feel manipulated, because as a character she isn't that engaging. Kent endows her with standard traits favored by modern authors--a love of reading, a desire to improve herself--and that's about it. Dare I say, she's generic. (She also behaves in unconvincing ways, such as going from not wanting to communicate with anyone to spilling her life story to the curious Toti, who does little to inspire trust.) And so the book went for me: I responded to Agnes's suffering, but I didn't respond to her. This is a story about suffering (and Kent handles the last chapter very well; in the way Agnes faces her death there's none of the pious sugarcoating you often see in fiction), so it did affect me. I put off finishing the book because I knew it would be rough, and found myself thinking about the story for days afterwards. But it didn't truly earn those emotions.

One last word on the characters: while Margret and Toti and the girls begin the story with plenty of potential, they never really grow or change except in their feelings toward Agnes. It's Agnes's story, but we spend enough time in the other characters' heads that you'd expect them to have character arcs of their own. They don't.

On to my other major issue, which is the final reveal of the murders. (SPOILERS.) Kent spends the book building toward this point, and in the victim's cruelty and manipulation we start to see why Agnes might have killed him. Her story seems not to dispute that, but to ask for understanding: "To know what a person has done, and to know who a person is, are very different things," she says, and this idea is at the heart of the book until nearly the end. It's a worthy theme; I was on board. And then--surprise!--it turns out she did nothing wrong, at least not morally; she just stumbled onto the crime scene after the deed was done (but botched) and put Natan out of his misery. This failed for me on several levels. Plot-wise, I was promised a murderess, and felt Kent was trying too hard to vindicate Agnes in every possible way: she had an understandable motivation for killing the guy, AND she didn't kill him. Thematically, the case that Agnes is more than her crime is undermined by removing the crime. And structurally, if a book centers around a wrongful conviction, I expect it to focus on how the conviction happened; the crime the protagonist didn't commit matters less than the one society committed against her, but the book delves into that hardly at all.

As for the more technical aspects of the novel, it seems well-researched and there's a good sense of place. The writing is good enough, although overpraised. At times the author tries too hard: "Autumn fell upon the valley like a gasp," begins one chapter; having never seen a gasp fall, I found this comparison confusing. But such infelicities are few.

In the end, would I recommend this book? Probably not, because if you're going to read something this painful, you want it to be excellent. But I'm genuinely glad that other people are loving this story, and don't regret reading it. I wish it well. But I wish it had been better.
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18 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on September 12, 2013
In 1829, northern Iceland housed the last person executed in that country; Agnes Magnusdottir was that person, and she was convicted for her role in the murders of Natan Ketilsson and Petur Jonsson in March of 1828. Burial Rites, though fictitious, is based on the events of that time, using the names of the people who were in some way connected to this story. The information at the back of the book under "Author's Note" is very interesting and full of enlightenment.

While awaiting execution, Agnes had spent her time caged in conditions worse than those of an animal. Filthy, skinny, lice-ridden and in total despair, she was shocked but slightly hopeful when she learned she was to spend her remaining time at a farm, under direction of a spiritual man of the cloth, still a prisoner, but becoming prepared for her destiny within the arms of a family.

District Officer Jon Jonsson, wife Margret and daughters Steina and Lauga lived on their farm Kornsa, extremely poor but happy enough. Until they learned they were to house a murderess - the anger and confusion culminated in worry that they would be murdered in their beds. Initially refusing to speak to Agnes unless necessary, the family found as the months went by, household chores found them working side by side on occasion. Steina in particular felt a kinship with Agnes; against her family's wishes she conversed with her, felt anger on her behalf.

With the cold winter months keeping them all in close proximity inside the small house, Assistant Reverend Toti spent much time with Agnes, encouraging her to talk of her past, her childhood, her family and the events she was incarcerated for... With the family quietly occupied with knitting or similar activities, they learned about Agnes' life...

I thoroughly enjoyed Aussie author Hannah Kent's debut novel, and found the writing to be absolutely beautiful. Many sentences stood out, but one I particularly loved was
"My tongue feels so tired; it slumps in my mouth like a dead bird, all damp feathers, in between the stones of my teeth."

As I grew to know the characters, I felt varying emotions - I felt a deep sympathy for Margret, trying to protect her girls; sympathy also for Steina who felt a real connection to Agnes. I won't put anymore here for fear of spoilers, but this is certainly a book which will stay with me for a long time. I have no hesitation in recommending Burial Rites highly to everyone.
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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon November 21, 2013
My star rating doesn't reflect the quality of writing in this novel, I have no complaints about the writing. The writing took me back in time to a place that was vivid in its harshness and brutality and showed a life so bleak I wondered how people ever survived.

I have no complaint about the pacing or the intensity of the story, I was engaged from start to finish.

The book is based on a true story and the author's extensive research made for a realistic and heartrending depiction of the life of Agnes Magnusdottir, the last person sentenced to death by public beheading in Iceland.

If you asked me if this was a good book, I would have to say it was well written, well researched and realistically depicted the historical figures. But it was just so bleak and sad that I can't say 'I liked it' but I'm also not sorry I read it. It is worth reading, but you might want to give a little thought to when you read it. Certainly not a beach read but you might want a little sunshine in your weather while you're reading.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
I found the backdrop of this story set in 1828/1829 Iceland fascinating, and was really impressed (and entertained) by the author's historical detailing. I can't even imagine the enormous amount of research it entailed. Everything from the process of how sausages are made to the details about the penal system to the way to use seaweed as a pillow... All unusual transportive details.

But I can't understand why the author chose the narrative approach she did--alternating between a first person present tense narrative from the main character's point of view to a third person (sometimes limited, sometimes omniscient) that wandered amongst other characters, often retelling the same events. Every single time there was a narrative switch I felt depressed to be jarred out of the storytelling and wanted to put the book down.

So, glad I read it, but also glad to not have to be reading it anymore.
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