2013 Historical Fiction

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Burial Rites

Five words from the blurb: Iceland, murder, lover, remote, family

Burial Rites is an atmospheric story set in Iceland during the 19th century. The book is based upon real events and tells the story of Agnes Magnusdottir, a women sentenced to death for murdering two men. There were no prisons on Iceland at this time so Agnes is sent to live on a remote farm, but the family are unhappy to have a criminal in their midst. Even the presence of a young priest, instructed to help Agnes mentally prepare for death, does not reassure them. But over time the family begin to bond with Agnes and the truth about her actions are slowly revealed.

The story itself is quite simple, but the author manages to make it gripping throughout. Details of family life in this harsh, isolated environment add to the book’s appeal:

Steina Jonsdottir was piling dried dung in the yard outside her family’s turf croft when she heard the rapid clop of horses’ hooves. Rubbing mud off her skirts, she stood and peered around the side of the hovel to better see the riding track that ran through the valley. A man in a bright red coat was approaching. She watched him turn towards the farm and, fighting a flicker of panic at the realisation she would have to greet him, retreated back around the croft, where she hurriedly spat on her hands to clean them and wiped her nose on her sleeve. 

Burial Rites could be described as crime fiction as there is a gruesome mystery at its heart, but I think the book will have greater appeal to fans of literary fiction who will appreciate the clever structure and emotional depth.

My only criticism is that the novel failed to capture the Icelandic mindset. When reading this book amongst many other Icelandic ones it stood out as different. The countryside and their living conditions appeared to be well researched and accurate, but the thoughts and actions of the characters often felt wrong. Many subtle aspects of their culture were missing, including their unique independence, and without reference to Icelandic names and places it could easily have been set in any Western country. This is unlikely to detract from most reader’s enjoyment of the book, but is something I found a little disappointing. 

If you enjoy literary fiction with historical elements then you’ll love this compelling, atmospheric read. I’m sure people will particularly enjoy its originality, but be prepared for an emotional roller-coaster!


The thoughts of other bloggers:

Kent writes with an artist’s hand, crafting her story meticulously. S Krishna’s Books

 …at times so entrancing it is almost hypnotic. Cerebral Girl

It’s original without being gimmicky, poetic without being overdone. The Incredible Rambling Elimy


17 replies on “Burial Rites by Hannah Kent”

I have been trying to screw up the courage to read this because I’ve seen so many positive reviews but each has made me contemplate the emotional aspects of the book with something like dread. I’m not good with emotional roller-coasters!

Alex, It isn’t emotional in a dark, disturbing way (like We Need to Talk about Kevin or Beside the Sea) It is a more a what will happen? Slight lump in the throat type emotion. Don’t let it put you off!

TripFiction, Try ‘Independent People’ by Laxness, which is set in about the same time period and you’ll see the difference I’m referring to. It is the main thing I love about Icelandic fiction so I’m always on the look out for it. Shame, as I think I’d have enjoyed the book a lot more if it hadn’t been set in Iceland and I hadn’t been looking for more ‘independence’!

I love the Icelandic setting, and it is a shame if any story taking place there does not take advantage. It definitely becomes its own character, and what sets it apart from the mainstream.

Michael, I expected the crime to have a larger presence in the book, but in the end I liked the balance of it without its dominance. I was impressed by the structure. I should read more literary crime…

I think you liked this one more than I did, Jackie. I nearly abandoned it a couple of times during the first 150 pages as I was finding it completely unengaging. But it’s very much a book of two halves – the second half, which is taken up almost entirely by Agnes’s account of the events at Illugastadir, is far more involving.
But I did have a few issues with the novel: I haven’t read any Icelandic fiction, but I too felt like this could have been set almost anywhere – Ireland, the Hebrides, Scandinavia, even Canada – although Kent does create atmosphere well.
My main problem though was with how the story was told – the flipping between first and third person seemed largely unnecessary and became redundant in the second half of the book when it would have been just as easy to have it all in the first person with Agnes occasionally saying “what I didn’t tell the Reverend was (…)”.
And, although I appreciate Agnes is literate, well-versed in the sagas, and lived in a time where oral storytelling would have been something people were more skilled at, her story as she speaks it to the Reverend and to Margrét doesn’t sound like speech – it’s too honed and crafted (nobody actually says “so-and-so exclaimed”, that’s something you write).
In fact a lot of the dialogue felt wrong throughout the book – mostly it was quite plain with a hint of formality to give it the feel of a past era, but then she’d throw in jarring modern idiom that made me feel like I was watching an episode of ‘Merlin’ or ‘Atlantis’ (for example, Sigga and Fredrik needing to get Natan “on side”).
Ah well, Kent did partially win me around although everyone believing Agnes’s story and deciding by the end that they quite liked her was a bit too ‘feel-good’-ish, even if they did chop her head off! Not a bad book, and I’d definitely read whatever she writes next, but far from being the great book that all the rave reviews had me hoping it would be.

David, I didn’t mind the way the book flipped between narrative perspectives, but agree that it might have been better if it had stuck with first person all the way through (but maybe that is because I always prefer a first person narrative in books?)

I also agree about the dialogue – there were many points when it didn’t feel right to me. I thought it was mainly a lack of Icelandic feeling, but agree that some expressions were far too modern to be included.

Anyway I’m glad you stuck with it and enjoyed the last half a bit more. At least you can now join in discussions about it 🙂

Burial Rites is a very good novel and I gave it four out of five. However, the reason it didn’t get five out of five is due to its derivative nature. It has many, many similarities to Margaret Atwood’s ‘Alias Grace, so is far from original. It even has elements of Anita Shreve’s excellent novel, ‘The Weight of Water’. But, I forgave the author for those indiscretions due to her being a first time novelist and Burial Rites is a very well written novel.
I finished reading Anna Quindlen’s ‘Still Life with Breadcrumbs’ and loved it. Next book on the long-list to read is ‘Americanah’.
I’m enjoying your site and i’m off to explore it further.

Thanks for this review. Being Icelandic I do not agree that Kent doesn’t capture the Icelandic mindset. She does a good job, considering the time in which the novel is set, and the place as well. It is an isolated community, with long distances. People are gossipy and suspicious, they are subjugated by the authorities, etc. I think the novel reflects this quite well.

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