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Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

On September 30, 2013

By Sophia Whitfield

Burial Rites is a beautifully told gripping tale that manages to build suspense throughout the novel despite its inevitability. Thoroughly researched, it is a moving account of the loneliness endured by one woman who must live out her final days in a claustrophobic setting in bitter conditions.

This story all began when Hannah Kent took a gap year after high school to Iceland. She wanted to see snow and so Iceland was the obvious choice. It was here that she discovered the story of Agnes Magnusdottir which ten years later forms her debut novel, Burial Rites.

In Iceland, 1892, Agnes Magnusdottir is condemned to death for the murder of two men. She was the last woman to be executed in Iceland, beheaded on January 12, 1830, aged 33.

As she waits out her execution she is sent to the remote farm of District Office Jon Jonsson where she must assist with the farming. She lives in close proximity with Jon, his wife Margret and their two daughters Steina and Lauga.

Agnes must be appointed a minister to absolve her of her crime before her execution, she asks for assistant minister Toti whom she has met once before. Returning to a place she once called home, Agnes reflects on her life as she divulges to both Toti and Margret the circumstances that led to the crime. The burning question that lurks at the heart of the book is did she or did she not kill two men? It is only in the final pages of the book that the truth is revealed.

As Agnes spends her time assisting Margret on the farm, the reader is drawn to her story, keen for Agnes to be exonerated from her crime. The reader is moved by her plight and, like Toti, desperate to hear her side of the story. What really happened on the night of March 13, 1828, when healer Natan Ketilsson and friend Petur Jonsson were stabbed and bludgeoned to death?

Supported by factual letters from the past Kent has written a moving narrative of Agnes Magnusdottir’s life set to the backdrop of a bleak landscape bathed in a formidable cold climate. Based on a true story Kent unravels the history behind the execution of a woman whose fate was sealed. She vividly reimagines Agnes story tracking her life from deserted child to convicted criminal.

If you like historical fiction you will love Hannah Kent’s debut novel. It is a novel you will read quickly, but not forget.

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