Being brutally honest about books

Thursday, 13 August 2015

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Date finished: 12 August 2015

Where do I even start? This is a novel based on a true story about the last person to be executed in Iceland in 1830, Agnes Magnúsdóttir, sentenced to death for her part in the murders of two men. It’s dark and grim, definitely not what you’d want to read on a summer holiday. But it’s so well-done that despite its bleakness it’s a beautiful book.

As it’s based on a true story, it’s not as if the plot can be full of improbable adventure. Instead, we see how Agnes lives out her last few months before her execution, and through flashbacks and her stories to the reverend and her host family we find out about her past. There are also documents from the case that give an idea of how criminals were treated at the time, which made me uneasy. The author does a great job at retelling Agnes’s story and, as she says in the author’s note, provide a “more ambiguous portrayal of this woman” so that we sympathise with the protagonist. Without flashbacks the plot would have no substance and it would be very boring to read, but the backstory and the eventual recounting of the events leading up to and during the double murder make it interesting and even gripping.

The most obvious thing to comment on is the writing. Even the blurb calls the prose beautiful and cut-glass, and that’s correct. So is the comment from author Madeline Miller (whose book The Song of Achilles is one of my new favourites – check out my review here), which definitely convinced me to give Burial Rites a go. The language is stunning. The words and sentence structures themselves aren’t too complicated, but the use of imagery is amazing – I’m in awe of the author’s ability to string together such wonderful similes. Even if the story doesn’t excite you, the book is worth reading for the writing alone.

Agnes is a believable character, and I liked that she is strong but not invincible – she gets on with her life, facing terrible hardships and losses, but her response to the reality that she is about to be executed is very human – she is terrified, and this moved me. Agnes is in her mid-thirties at the time of her execution, but her age is not too important and even though I’m half her age I still felt for her, which is no mean feat for the writer. The reverend, Tóti, is likeable too, as is Steina (not so much her sister Lauga), and Margrét becomes more accepting and forgiving towards Agnes, even though she is very against Agnes coming to live with her family at the beginning. Most of the characters are not very nice, however, but they are still portrayed realistically and are important to the plot to be written that way, so I think the overall characterisation is excellent.

This is the fourth book I’ve read this year with a Scandinavian setting, but Iceland in 1828-1830 is a new one for me. We see the poverty and hardships the ordinary people faced just to survive, as well as the public opinion towards criminals, which is all very interesting and serves to develop the characters. The Icelandic character and place names are distracting in terms of pronunciation, but at the start of the book is a guide for some vowels and diphthongs, which helps a bit. The map is also useful in figuring out where the locations mentioned are in relation to each other.

This is an adult book, which I’ve been finding myself reading more of lately, but despite the mature themes (unhealthy relationships is not the only one) and occasional graphic imagery, I think it would be fine for anyone over sixteen to read. If you’re a fan of historical fiction with a bit of crime thrown in, Burial Rites is definitely worth picking up.
I'm Alexandria, a 19-year-old reader/writer/blogger from New Zealand. I love language, history, and sci-fi. Hi! I'm always around if you want to talk, which you can do via comments, the contact form, or Facebook.

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