Title: Burial Rites
Author: Hannah Kent
No. of Pages: 336
Origins: Little, Brown and Company
Release Date: 10 September 2013
Bottom Line: One of the best books of the year
“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 Toti, 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.”
Thoughts: Hannah Kent is crafty. She draws readers into Burial Rites with stark descriptions of the brutal treatment Agnes suffers in captivity all the while maintaining her dignity in the most undignified of situations. She keeps readers’ interest through the hints at a much more complex story than the official version of the crime, and she immerses readers into a world where money and appearances mean more than anything, and where the survival of humans in this very isolated and harsh part of the world depends on the strict adherence to laws and customs. A reader instinctively knows that Agnes’ story is incomplete but the way in which the story unfolds is utterly entrancing, keeping readers guessing and then wrestling with their own definitions of right and wrong as well as guilt and innocence.
Agnes is the best kind of unassuming heroine. Her prickly exterior makes sense given her rough childhood and life as an unmarried woman with no financial means. In fact, given how well she survives in this unforgiving masculine world is admirable and downright astonishing. Her current plight is nothing short of complete frustration at the unfairness of Agnes’ world, at her stubbornness about refusing to defend herself, and at the rough lot in life she was forced to experience. Yet, it is her sensitive side, the part of her that still hopes, dreams, and longs for safety and security, to which readers are most drawn. Her fierce independence allows her to survive in the cruel world into which she is born, but it is the softer, feminine side of her, exposed through her confessions and story-telling, in which she truly comes alive. Ms. Kent’s careful and extremely thorough research pays off in the strong emotional reactions of the reader and with the multi-dimensional elements of Agnes and the novel’s entire setting.
Burial Rites is a haunting glimpse into an obscure historical event and remote geographical region. Agnes’ unfolding story breaks down the barriers between servant and master, the haves and the have-nots, as well as past and present, as Ms. Kent brings 1829 Iceland back to life in all its desolate vibrancy. The social, religious, political, and economic issues at play behind Agnes’ fate are fascinating in their unfamiliarity as well as their similarities to current issues. Told with breathtaking clarity, Burial Rites is without a doubt once of the best books released in 2013.