Title: Burial Rites
Author: Hannah Kent
Source: Review copy from publisher
Buy it: Here
Agnes Magnusdottir is sentenced to death for the murder of her lover, Natan Ketilsson, alongside two others convicted of helping her. While she awaits the day of her execution, Agnes is placed to be held with a family on a remote Icelandic farm, in place of a prison, to see through the Winter. As lives are endangered and up-heaved by the presence of the prisoner, attachments and understandings begin to form, and the truth of the crime seeps into the silences as the executioner's axe looms.
It is evident from the start that a tonne of research has gone into the writing of Burial Rites, which is based upon the true story of the last woman to be executed in Iceland. Every detail is considered and the characters felt as if they were telling their story from the shadows beside you. They were absolutely alive - until they were not. The writing was poetic and simple, and not a single word out of place or superfluous. Iceland was constructed before the reader through its wild and expansive landscape, and the mood of the novel was set and unfaltering throughout the story. It was one of gentle kindling trust and of uncertainty; of human companionship meaning so much to those with nothing; of facing death and staying strong.
The characters in this novel were wonderful. Agnes and the wife of her host family, Magret, are strong and dutiful women - both facing fate in their own separate ways. I wholly enjoyed reading their passages, as the two women skirt around each other in mutual respect before finally finding their moment in a beautifully set scene towards the end of the book. Equally, the fleeting communications between the family's daughters and Agnes are well portrayed to feel sympathy on both sides of their actions; Steina, the lesser talented elder of the two sisters is desperate for a friend, while Lauga is wary to the point of rudeness.
Of course, the ending of Burial Rites is foretold at the very beginning. Agnes is, of course, sentenced to death and as the conclusion approached I felt that I had only really just got started - that I had only really known Agnes in the last few chapters- and that I was about to be snatched away from this story too soon. Perhaps, though, this is the desired effect. Hannah Kent has created a thing of horrific beauty with Burial Rites.
Burial Rites was a beautiful read, slow but not laboured, imagining a situation that is almost unimaginable - the knowledge that your day of death is set. Those who enjoy an introspective read about humanity and fragile bonds will devour the pages of this book, although may feel a little disheartened by the rather abrupt ending. I can't wait for more from this author.