Thursday, July 28, 2016

Book Review: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

"Burial Rites" by Hannah Kent
First published in 2013
319 pages
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!)


  1. Oooh, I can't wait to get to this one! I recently picked up the audiobook because it came in an Audible email entitled something like "moody Nordic tales" and I just couldn't resist.

    I am sad that the audio won't come with a map or a pronunciation guide, but I'm excited that the narrator will, with any luck, actually say the words correctly and so teach me Icelandic pronunciation that way. ;)

    So glad you enjoyed it!

    1. I hope you like it, Shaina! I was a bit surprised at how much I enjoyed it since it's definitely a character-driven novel and those aren't always my favorite. I think the writing is what stole the show for me -- as well as the depictions of Iceland, which is toward the top of my travel bucket list.

      I don't think you'll miss the map too much, and I'm actually a bit jealous that you'll get to hear the Icelandic places and words pronounced out loud! To be honest, I occasionally skimmed over the more complicated bits in my reading rather than working out the correct pronunciation!

  2. I absolutely loved this book last year... and I'm not a huge reader of historical fiction! I do read it occasionally, but this one called to me, and I'm so glad. It was moody, atmospheric, and engaging. I would like to take a trip to Iceland someday.

  3. I think I'm the only person in the world who was disappointed by this book. My problem may have been that I listened to the audio (the narration was good, but maybe it just wasn't a great listening choice for me), but I felt like nothing at all happened in this book. I really loved the premise, and I just don't know why I couldn't get into it the way other people have.


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