August 16th, 2014

rotting doll.

Review: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Burial Rites
by Hannah Kent

Charged with the murder of her employer Natan and sentenced to death, Agnes Magnúsdóttir is placed in the custody of District Officer Jón and his family. The officer’s wife Margrét and two daughters are horrified when informed they must house a murderess until her execution is carried out and fear for their safety. But the pitiful, filthy woman dropped unceremoniously at their doorstep seems hardly capable of such violence. The criminal is visited regularly by the Reverend Tóti, a young priest charged with redeeming her soul, and with his patient encouragement the story of Agnes’ sad life slowly trickles out.

Agnes reveals her memories in a dreamlike narrative rich with poetic descriptions. Blizzards “howl like the widows of fishermen”, hearts grow “hard and sharp until it is a nest of rocks with only an empty egg in it,” and memories “shift like snow in a wind”. Her evocative words paint a picture of the rural wildness of early 19th century Iceland without directly describing the landscape before her. It’s very effective and lovely. Agnes’ life, however, is anything but lovely. Abandoned by her mother when she was six, kicked out of her foster home after her foster mother dies in childbirth, Agnes moves from one farm to the next, working the lowliest servant jobs. Eventually, she meets Natan Ketilsson, a man rumored to be a sorcerer who invites her to become the mistress of his farm. But Natan’s changeable nature and false dealings with Agnes and his other female servant cause endless friction, leading up to the disaster that destroys them all.

Agnes’ relationship with Margrét is the strongest in the novel. While Margrét initially distrusts Agnes, she eventually warms to her as she impressed by the prisoner’s hard work and quiet obedience, and saddened by the pathetic tale she hears whispered to the priest. As the mistress of an impoverished farm, living in a croft that’s slowly crumbling, Margrét understands hardship, and as her own poor health fails she feels a great bond with the woman who waits each day to hear when she will die. Her daughters form their own relationships with Agnes, too; the older sister Steina follows Agnes around like a devoted puppy while the younger daughter Lauga heaps scorn upon her.

A somber yet thoughtful story, Burial Rites is an evocative meditation on carrying on when the shadow of death constantly hangs over one’s shoulder. The gritty realism of day-to-day life on a farm contrasts beautifully with the poetic language used by Agnes in her narrations, making the reader wonder what she would have been capable of had she been born into better circumstances.

3.5 out of 5 stars

To read more about Burial Rites, buy it or add it to your wishlist click here.

Peeking into the in:
2013: Passion and Poison by Janice M. Del Negro
2012: Giveaway: The Second Empress by Michelle Moran
2011: The Last Days of the Incas by Kim MacQuarrie
2010: News: Press “Pause” on Fashionista Piranha
2009: Ashland 2009: All’s Well That Ends Well by William Shakespeare
2008: When We Were Romans by Matthew Kneale