Burial Rites by Hannah Kent ~ 2013

 They said I must die. They said that I stole the breaths from men, and now they must steal mine. I imagine, then, that we are all candle flames, greasy-bright, fluttering in the darkness and the howl of the wind, and in the stillness of the room I hear footsteps, awful coming footsteps, coming to blow me out and send my life up away from me in a grey wreath of smoke.

A brilliant literary debut, inspired by true events: the final days of a young woman accused of murder in Iceland in 1828

Author: Hannah Kent
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company - Hachette Book Group, Inc.
Publication date: First North American Edition: September 10th 2013
Pages: 314
ISBN: 9780316243919
Jacket design: Ploy Siripant
Front jacket photograph: Jose Picayo
Back jacket photograph: Bjorn Abelin/plainpicture/Bildhuset
Jacket © 2013 Hachette Book Group, Inc.
Author photographer: Nicholas Purcell

5 Stars

Hannah Kent

Hannah Kent's first novel, Burial Rites is the epitome of an author displaying their craft into a phenomenal read.

Once started, your drawn into a prose so beautifully written, it is perceivable you will shut out your day-to-day reality and take a trip to Iceland, witnessing first hand the austere life in the early 1800's for a story of a not so perfect penal system and a love gone awry.

This is the story of Agnes Magnusdottir, a woman whose short life was directed through the gossip of others. Charged and convicted of accessory to a ruthless double murder of Natan Ketilsson and Petur Jonsson, arson, and conspiracy to murder she is placed at Kornsa, an isolated farm in northern Iceland to await her execution.

A young lady of only 34 years, her life was shortened because nobody had the decency of lending an ear. As I said, her life was directed through the gossip (to say the least) of others. Even Natan himself being in one of his mood swings treated her only as an existent. In my view, all this young lady did was fall into a 'hopeful' love with Natan despite even what the gossip of Natan was and then, at the end of this hopeful love story, be sentenced to death for his murder.

All her life Agnes had lived a life that no one ever knew. Her herself. Life was hard for women of her stature and eventually ending up with Natan was a peak in her life.

In her eyes they were going to end up a couple and to have the final days of their relationship end the way it ended was heart breakening. All she was guilty of was being there just as Sigga and the baby. And if it were true of stabbing Natan because Natan himself wanted it because of his situation - she was only guilty of being humane. ? (Don't want to start nothing here.) If that was the way it went down.

After being found guilty and sentenced to death and a short spin in prison she arrives at Kornsa on horseback, irons screwed on and strapped to the saddle like a corpse being taken to the burial ground. Her appearance is of filth and obvious weary and looked as if she was dragged there then put on horseback at the last moment only for humane appearance sakes all around.

The family who inhabit the farm at Kornsa relinquish their peaceful way of life due to their father, Jon Jonsson, being the District Officer of Vatnsdalur having responsibilities to His Majesty the King.  His wife Margret and their two daughters, Steina and Lauga are besides themselves to the prospect of housing a murderess. Steina, just turning 21 and Lauga a year younger get their guard up.

Agnes requests Assistant Reverend Thorvardur Jonsson (Toti) as her priest. Toti would visit Agnes on repeated occasions and they would talk as instructed by District Commissioner Bjorn Blondal. Margret, Seina, Lauga and even Jon heard the other side of the story.

How could they not? Agnes living there for months, having Toti and her conversations overheard by all being cramped together in a badstofa. Sure, the other side of the story will come out after spending so many months there together. Margret and her daughters were starting to hear Agnes for the first time, as if listening to another straight-forward person you'd meet new some place.

Even after their own first impressions with Agnes being stoic and reticent at the beginning and Jon with his 'Thank you' to Agnes for his meal that one night, they all came around that Agnes was not a monster but a voice unheard.

During her stay with this family they had learned of Agnes' side of the murders which should have been heard in the court system but did not for reasons unknown to me.

Hannah Kent told us a story of how a young woman maintained her decency as a human being knowing you are only staying there under that roof until your death and Hannah portrayed her as a 'wouldn't-mind-having-you-as-a-neighbor' kind of lady.

Even though Agnes had to help with the chores and the such, Agnes stepped up to the plate, as in, I am a human being just as you are. She helped with relaying and implementing learned information she had picked up here and there and remembered through life i.e., helping out the blood hacking Margret, Roslins baby, Seinas endless questions. Even Jon. That was cool.

Agnes was not a bad seed but a seed that never had the chance to flower.

Time moves and frequent after frequent after... Toti's visits stop. And her birthday comes and goes. Where was Toti? Working on appeals? Gave up on her? You could probably imagine how her time moved.

To only suddenly come alive again with the unexpected arrival of Toti carrying barren news her life will end in six days.

Hannah Kent's writing here takes the reader into a sublime example of  her craft, describing how Agnes sounded and looked like finally knowing her date. Beautifully written I felt. Exactly as I pictured a doomed person would be.

That night with the other near-death woman, Margret, the one and the same that voiced herself to keep that bitch away from knives and her kitchen when they first met and yes, the one that ceded to Agnes' proffered help in time of a dire need - the story unfolded. Margret and her family saw the other side - her side.

As Margret pulled out a more suitable ensemble to wear to one's death then what she was currently wearing including the brooch (I was loving Lauga and her demeanor) I believe Margret and the rest of the family knew Agnes was wronged.

As the valley heard the first axe fall - Fridrik Sigurdsson, the son of the farmer at Katadalur, the execution was deemed.

Sigga, the third person who was there that fateful evening was sentenced to prison.

Agnes, I believe, died scared but with a dignity knowing her side was told.

The way Hannah Kent wrote had me engrossed as I read this novel. The novel moves in an alternating POV.  Third person narrating and intermittently, Agnes telling her thoughts and feelings. For me it was a great spin on story-telling. Loved this twist Hannah Kent gave to the reader. Great way to tell a bit of history.  Hannah Kent's adeptness in writing is compared to an artist painting a masterpiece.

I personally can not give enough accolades to this astonishing debut. Thank you Ms. Kent!

Burial Rites is compelling, moving, and beautifully written. You are right along with Agnes on every page. Her prose brings you to northern Iceland and you actually feel the winter coming and the tension of death looming. This is beautifully written.

Burial Rites is highly recommended.

Burial Rites

Hannah Kent Discusses Burial Rites

Here's where you can get your fingers on Burial Rites:
  • Amazon ~ Kindle $9.99 ~ Hardcover $17.30 ~ Paperback $11.35 USD
  • Barnes & Noble ~ NOOK $9.99 ~ Hardcover $17.47 ~ Paperback $11.59 USD
  • IndieBound ~ Support your local book stores

About the author

Hannah Kent is a Melbourne-based writer, born in Adelaide in 1985. Burial Rites, has been translated into over twenty languages and was shortlisted for the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize) and the Guardian First Book Award.

It won the ABIA Literary Fiction Book of the Year, the Indie Awards Debut Fiction Book of the Year and the Victorian Premier's People's Choice Award, and has most recently been longlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.

Hannah is also the co-founder and publishing director of Australian literary journal Kill Your Darlings.  Her second novel is out this fall.

From Hannah Kent:
Some exciting news, friends. I have a new book coming out in October 2016 (Australia). Dates for UK and US to follow.

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