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Burial Rites

by Hannah Kent

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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3,2612573,473 (4.02)360
Set against Iceland's stark landscape, Hannah Kent brings to vivid life the story of Agnes, who, charged with the brutal murder of her former master, is sent to an isolated farm to await execution. Horrified at the prospect of housing a convicted murderer, the family at first avoids Agnes. Only Tóti, a priest Agnes has mysteriously chosen to be her spiritual guardian, seeks to understand her. But as Agnes's death looms, the farmer's wife and their daughters learn there is another side to the sensational story they've heard. . . . BURIAL RITES evokes a dramatic existence in a distant time and place --… (more)
Recently added byJoeB1934, _jen_, Mita2022, 4000emilys, tuusannuuska, private library, tim_rylance
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    BookshelfMonstrosity: The Polished Hoe portrays conditions in 20th-century Jamaica, while Burial Rites focuses on 19th-century Iceland, but these exquisitely detailed literary historical novels explore the lives of unusually intelligent women whose treatment by their masters has resulted in terrible crimes.… (more)
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    BookshelfMonstrosity: Although Slammerkin is more suspenseful and richly detailed than the spare, reflective Burial Rites, both character-driven historical novels draw upon true stories of young women accused of murder. Emphasis on the protagonists' impoverished backgrounds allows for exploration of social issues.… (more)
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» See also 360 mentions

English (250)  French (2)  Dutch (1)  German (1)  Italian (1)  All languages (255)
Showing 1-5 of 250 (next | show all)
Historical fiction at its finest! In 1828, Agnes Magnúsdóttir has been condemned to death for the murder of two men. Due to the lack of incarceration facilities in rural Iceland, she is ordered to be housed at a farm, much to the dismay of the resident family. Over time, she develops relationships with the family members. As they get to know her, she proves to be much more multi-faceted than expected. She has requested a local priest to counsel her in her final days, and he becomes an integral part of the plot.

The author takes a true story and, based on research, provides a plausible and captivating narrative to depict events that may have happened. She tells the tale in alternating perspectives, Agnes in first person and the others in third person. Kent’s eloquent descriptions easily transported me into rural life in Iceland in the early 19th century. I could envision the bleak Icelandic terrain, feel the cold chill of a winter storm, and smell the pungent aromas of the farm. As may be expected from the subject matter, it has a melancholy tone.

I am amazed that this book was the debut for Hannah Kent and look forward to reading more from her. Highly recommended to readers who enjoy historical fiction and articulate, expressive writing. ( )
  Castlelass | Nov 4, 2022 |
Burial Rites is Hannah Kent’s shattering historical novel about the last person executed in Iceland for murder, the sixth day of January 1830. This is a sad and somber tale of Agnes Magnusdottir, a serving girl who is accused of murdering her master, Natan Ketilsson; a woman who has had little love and no breaks in her short lifetime. When the story opens, Agnes has already been tried and found guilty and is awaiting execution. She is transferred to the farm of a minor government official and we come to see her through both her own thoughts and those of the members of the family holding her and the priest sent to reclaim her soul.

Not surprisingly, Iceland in the 1800s was a harsh and cold place to attempt survival in the best of circumstances. For a person of Agnes’ standing, it was both a cruel natural environment and a cruel social one. The justice system is very arbitrary and based as much on superstition and suspicion as evidence. Kent has woven from the scant records available a seemingly realistic and poignant tale of the life and death of its final victim.

The mood Kent weaves around this place and these events is gripping. I could feel the cold, see the stark lifestyle, smell the dampness of the badstofa, with the bodies crammed in the tight space and radiating the heat of passion and the exhaustion and sweat of the days of hard work. I could feel for the intelligent woman who is punished as much for the fact that she is born into the wrong social position as for any other crime she might have committed. The weight of her sorrow and her fear pushed on me throughout the pages right to the bitter end.

Agnes grapples with her coming death and the events that have lead to it and she tries to reconcile the part she played in her own fate and the part that life thrust upon her by accident of her birth. She compares herself at one juncture with a daughter of the house in which she is being held, and what she says made an impression on me that stung:

Has Steina ever had to decide whether to let a farmer up under her skirts and face the wrath of his wife, who will force her to do the shit-work, or to deny him and find herself homeless in the snow and fog with all doors barred against her?

Indeed, what choice is this? To be believed and respected she must deny him, but to deny him is to risk survival itself. And, this applies to almost every choice she makes in life, because she is always at the mercy of whether the people she is subjected to are as decent or less decent than herself.

Her fear as death approaches is palpable. Like all of us, she wants her life, she fears the silence of the tomb, she fears she cannot face the axe that will sever her head from her body and cast her into darkness forever. She fears being forgotten, but then as she says, “I don’t want to be remembered, I want to here!” and that, in truth, is true for all of us. None of us wishes to face our own demise, even though each of us knows that we will.

Finally, Agnes is everyman who faces the idea that the world will continue to turn and they, somehow, will not be there any longer to witness the seasons.
"Now comes the darkening sky and a cold wind that passes right through you, as though you are not there, it passes through you as though it does not care whether you are alive or dead, for you will be gone and the wind will still be there, licking the grass flat upon the ground, not caring whether the soul is at a freeze or thaw, for it will freeze and thaw again, and soon your bones, now hot with blood and thick-juicy with marrow, will be dry and brittle and flake and freeze and thaw with the weight of the dirt upon you, and the last moisture of your body will be drawn up to the surface by the grass, and the wind will come and knock it down and push you back against the rocks, or it will scrape you up under its nails and take you out to sea in a wild screaming of snow."

I could not help thinking of Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself:
I know I am deathless,
I know this orbit of mine cannot be swept by a carpenter’s compass,
I know I shall not pass like a child’s carlacue cut with a burnt stick at night.

I found myself hoping that Agnes felt a sweet surprise when she passed beyond this life, that the abyss was not abyss, but a light.

My hat is off to Hannah Kent for the feeling and emotion she packed into this novel without ever once crossing the line into maudlin or saccharin or untenable. This is her first novel, so I am anxious to see what she has done subsequently. I will not hesitate to read her again.

Once more, I owe a debt of gratitude to Lori, who took this journey with me and added so much to my thoughts and understanding of this book. ( )
  mattorsara | Aug 11, 2022 |
I love reading about Iceland, which sounds like a fascinating if rather bleak place to live, but even a glimpse into the history of the country wasn't enough to lift this novel out of the three star doldrums. All praise to the author for her research and skill in writing a novel about the fate of a real woman in an alien place and time, however - her notes on crafting her first book were almost as overwrought as the main character's life story!

Based on the infamous case of the last woman to executed - by axe! - in Iceland, Agnes Magnúsdóttir in 1827, Hannah Kent weaves a more sympathetic version of the condemned woman's final months in the custody of a farming family living in the bleak north of the island. Agnes and two others were convicted of bludgeoning and stabbing to death Agnes' lover Natan and another man before setting fire to his remote house in a bid to destroy the bodies. Agnes and Fridrik, an acquaintance of Natan's, were sentenced to death, while Natan's young housekeeper had her conviction commuted to hard labour. Kent delivers Agnes' version of the murders in reverse, revealing the 'human truth' of her part in the crime via an extended therapy session to a young priest sent to help the murderess seek forgiveness for her sins.

Finding out if Agnes was actually guilty, and to what extent, is all that kept me reading after a certain point, and even that revelation turned out to be an anticlimax. The bulk of the novel, which could have been shorter, is more of a depressing travel guide for Iceland, with families freezing to death in hovels or butchering animals as a community event. The narrative is divided between repetitive third person accounts of Agnes surviving day to day with the family of a local official while waiting her execution date and Agnes' own life story in first person, as reported to the reverend in training who is little more than a sounding board for her tale of woe (or as one of the official's daughters captures pithily: 'Oh, pity me, I'm a pauper!'). I did actually start to feel sorry for Agnes, who is portrayed as capable and intelligent, until her story boiled down to falling in love with a wrong 'un and being rejected for a younger model. Her life choices were limited, certainly, but a woman throwing her life away for a man is always a depressing read.

I did get into the 'rhythm' of the story after a while, and the setting was very evocative - this is definitely a book to read in winter rather than mid-August! - but the pacing started to drag and I lost interest around the halfway point and started skim reading towards the end. ( )
  AdonisGuilfoyle | Aug 9, 2022 |
Burial Rites. Hannah Kent. 2013. Like many people, Iceland has always fascinated me. The depiction of brutal winters will cool you off during this heat wave in more ways than one. It is a novel but it is based on a true story. Agnes was the last person to be executed in Iceland. She was convicted of the murder of two men in 1828. It is told in flashbacks. The description of life in Iceland is beautifully described. We come to understand Agnes and the hash life she led as she tells her story to a young vulnerable priest. Lots of violence.It was made into a movie. ( )
  judithrs | Jul 21, 2022 |
Read in 2022 ( )
  MPerfetto | Jul 15, 2022 |
Showing 1-5 of 250 (next | show all)
One of the best “Scandinavian” crime novels I have read, Burial Rites is the work of an Australian who visited Iceland on a cultural exchange.
The novel isn't seamless—Ms. Kent disrupts its rhythms by awkwardly switching between an omniscient narrator and Agnes's first-person point of view. But it convincingly animates Agnes, who feels "knifed to the hilt with fate," showing her headstrong humanity and heart-wrenching thirst for life. At one point she recalls seeing two icebergs grinding together off the northern shore, the friction from their exposed boulders causing gathered driftwood to go up in flames. At her best, Ms. Kent achieves a similar eerie force in this story of passion in a frozen place.
There are other stylistic problems. Some dialogue that’s meant to seem elevated and of its time simply sounds unidiomatic: “I was worried of as much”; “The only recourse to her absolution would be through prayer.” There’s prefab phrasing — “my heart throbbed,” “she said breathlessly,” “overcome with relief” — and descriptive clichés, including a sky that’s “bright, bright blue, so bright you could weep.”
added by hf22 | editNew York Times, Steven Heighton (Sep 27, 2013)
A remarkable story of the last case of capital punishment recorded in Iceland, Burial Rites is the extraordinary debut novel by Australian author Hannah Kent.
Burial Rites is a debut of rare sophistication and beauty – a simple but moving story, meticulously researched and hauntingly told.
added by hf22 | editThe Guardian, Lucy Scholes (Aug 25, 2013)

» Add other authors

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Hannah Kentprimary authorall editionscalculated
Christie, MorvenNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Lubikowski, MartinCartographer.secondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Important places
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I was worst to the one I loved best.

Laxdæla Saga
For my parents
First words
They said I must die.
His hair is as red as before, as red as the midnight sun. It looks as though his locks have soaked up the light as a skein of wool suffers the dye.
"Do you know the right name for a flock of ravens?"
Tóti shook his head.
"A conspiracy, Reverend. A conspiracy."
A tight fear, like a fishing line, hooked upon something that must, inevitably, be dragged from the depths.
Yes, I am quite alone, and a tremble of exhilaration passes along my skin, like the tremor on the surface of a pot of water about to boil.
At Hvammur, during the trial, they plucked at my words like birds. Dreadful birds, dressing in red with breasts of silver buttons, and cocked heads and sharp mouths, looking for guilt like berries on a bush.
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Wikipedia in English (2)

Set against Iceland's stark landscape, Hannah Kent brings to vivid life the story of Agnes, who, charged with the brutal murder of her former master, is sent to an isolated farm to await execution. Horrified at the prospect of housing a convicted murderer, the family at first avoids Agnes. Only Tóti, a priest Agnes has mysteriously chosen to be her spiritual guardian, seeks to understand her. But as Agnes's death looms, the farmer's wife and their daughters learn there is another side to the sensational story they've heard. . . . BURIAL RITES evokes a dramatic existence in a distant time and place --

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Book description
Set against Iceland's stark landscape, Hannah Kent brings to vivid life the story of Agnes, who, charged with the brutal murder of her former master, is sent to an isolated farm to await execution.
Haiku summary
Listen to Agnes
Tell her version of events;
But is it the truth?

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