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Burial Rites Paperback – April 1, 2014
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An Amazon Best Book of the Month, September 2013: Exploring the final months of an Icelander maid charged with murder and condemned to execution in 1829 is hardly a reader-friendly subject for a novel. But in her mesmerizing debut, Hannah Kent offers a retelling of actual historical events that makes it impossible not to become invested in understanding the guilt--or innocence--of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last person to be executed in Iceland. Kent seamlessly shifts between historical documents and different characters’ perspectives with a lyricism that makes every tortured thought and charged interaction echo in the silence of Iceland’s stark landscape. As details of Agnes’s involvement in the crime come to light, this thoroughly researched debut novel asks us to examine the significance of stories--both the ones that others tell about us and the ones that we tell about ourselves--ultimately offering Agnes a chance at a more compassionate story than the one history has given her. --Heather Hunt
Photos from Hannah Kent, Author of Burial Rites
From Publishers Weekly
Kent's debut delves deep into Scandinavian history, not to mention matters of storytelling, guilt, and silence. Based on the true story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the novel is set in rural Iceland in 1829. Agnes is awaiting execution for the murder of her former employer and his friend, not in a prison—there are none in the area—but at a local family's farm. Jón Jónsson, the father, grudgingly accepts this thankless task as part of his responsibility as a regional official, but his wife and daughters' reactions range from silent resentment to outright fear. After settling in to the household, Agnes requests the company of a young priest, to whom she confesses parts of her story, while narrating the full tale only to the reader, who, like the priest, provide her with a final audience to her life's lonely narrative. The multilayered story paints sympathetic and complex portraits of Agnes, the Jónssons, and the young priest, whose motives for helping the convict are complicated. Kent smoothly incorporates her impressive research— for example, she opens many of the chapters with documents that come directly from archival sources—while giving life to these historical figures and suspense to their tales. Agent: Daniel Lazar, Writers House. (Sept.) --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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Top Customer Reviews
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.
As a child growing up in California, I would ask my father to tell me about his childhood. He would just say that he was never a child. For the first time in my life I can understand what his life must have been like and why he never wanted to go back to Iceland. When he was 5 years old, he rode his horse one full day to the nearest doctor to get his tonsils out, then rode back the next day. He spent several years in a tuberculosis asylum. He didn't see a car until he was 12. A year before he died, he told me that at age 12 he was sent to work on another farm where the farmer often beat him. Miraculously at age 20, he got a scholarship to John Hopkins University. He was supposed to go back to Iceland after graduation, but went the opposite direction to California instead.
Looking at Iceland now, it's hard to remember its impoverished past.
Thank you Hannah Kent for all the research and care you put into this book! It's right up there with Nobel laureates Sigrid Undset and Halldór Laxness. I'm looking forward to many more of your books!
Taking place in Iceland in 1828, "Burial Rites" is a (partially) fictionalized account of the life and death of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, a young woman found guilty of the murder of her lover. While she awaits her execution, she is housed in the remote country home of a low-level government official, his wife and two grown daughters. She chooses a young and inexperienced priest named Tóti to counsel her. The family is frightened to accommodate the prisoner, but something happens over the months that Agnes lives with them. She talks. Tóti listens. The family listens. Is Agnes really guilty of this horrific, bloody crime?
While the murder may be the tantalizing centerpiece of the story, the descriptions of the north of Iceland are so vivid, the reader can almost feel the brutal cold, see the snow and hear the howling winds. Like I did, you may find yourself looking online for photos of a badstofa, turf homes and the barren winter landscape of north Iceland.
This isn't a light beach book. It is by turns disturbing, alarming and sorrowful with no humor to lighten the woeful tale. But it is an incredible book that will give you an appreciation for this time and place and the most basic of human emotions that transcend both.