First published in 2013
My rating: 5 out of 5
Image from Goodreads
The Short Of It:
Haunting, beautiful and devastating. I loved this novel set in early-1800s Iceland about the fate of an accused murderess.
The Long Of It:
"Burial Rites" has a lot going for it, but my favorite aspect of the novel was the stark, rugged, hardscrabble setting of rural Iceland in 1829. It's cold, it's dark, it's brutal and I would absolutely not want to live there (despite the glaciers and the Northern lights), but I was more than happy to travel there through Hannah Kent's masterful writing.
The atmosphere is made all the more grim by our protagonist, a beautiful, mysterious and fiery woman named Agnes Magnusdottir, an accused murderess awaiting execution for a brutal crime that she may or may not have committed. As the story unfolds, we learn that her past has been maligned by the worst of luck and the hardest of circumstances, from her very first days on earth to the stabbing and fire at the farm where she was employed, for which she stood trial.
With her execution looming -- though the date is uncertain -- Agnes is moved from the atrocious conditions of the Stora-Borg prison to live out her remaining days with a district officer and his family on their country farm. As she regains a sense of normalcy in day-to-day tasks like churning butter, knitting and helping with the harvest, Agnes slowly reveals her story to the reverend who has been assigned to bring her soul up to snuff before the ax hits her neck.
I enjoyed "Burial Rites" for so many reasons: a unique inspired-by-true-events plot; stunningly beautiful writing; a vividly depicted setting; a glimpse into Icelandic culture, history and language; and a flawed but mesmerizing main character whom I grew quite attached to. The book also features two things I love: a map and a pronunciation guide for the unfamiliar Icelandic letters.
This is not a cheerful story, but there are cozy moments and kind moments and redeeming moments mixed in to this bleak and moving tale, and I know it's one I won't soon forget. I highly recommend "Burial Rites" for the lovely, rich, simile-filled writing alone. With passages like, "Up in the highlands blizzards howl like the widows of fishermen and the wind blisters the skin off your face. Winter comes like a punch in the dark. The uninhabited places are as cruel as any executioner," everything else is a bonus!
*Another bonus: Agnes and I share a birthday (almost 200 years apart, but the same day!)