As is often the way, I bought this after hearing about it online and let it sit on my precariously leaning tower of a TBR list. I read pretty widely, generally I’ll give everything a go, but I guess it’s not so often I am in the mood for a darkly atmospheric historical novel. Of course when the time came to read this, I devoured it in one or two sittings. I was lucky enough to go to the launch of Hannah Kent’s second book, The Good People, and before I read that one I wanted to write a few words about her astonishing debut. One thing I will say about that event is that during the ‘in conversation’ segment of the launch I was amazed and impressed by Kent’s eloquence, the flow of her speech, and the calm intelligence of her answers, unexpected in such a young writer.
In 1829, a man and woman were beheaded for a murder committed on a remote farm. There were no prisons in Iceland, so the woman was held at a farm where she’d lived as a child, with the farmer’s wife and daughters as her guards. Burial Rites is her story: Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last woman to be beheaded in Iceland.
While she stays at the farm, she is regularly visited by Tóti, the assistant reverend, to take her confession. The family shy away from her, and only Tóti feels compelled to try to understand her as he hears her story and tries to save her soul. The Arctic summer passages into a dark, bleak winter, and the execution date looms closer and closer.
Hannah Kent’s writing is cut-glass, sparse, poetic and sometimes brutally matter-of-fact. No word is wasted. This prose, with the level of obsessive research that has gone into this piece, makes for utterly immersive storytelling. Agnes is compelling and unlikeable and human; with each passing page and each passing encounter with Tóti, with the farmer’s family, with the memories she shares, gives the reader space to connect with her.
It’s a slow-burning novel, and I don’t recommend reading it over several days, unless maybe they’re cold winter nights and you have a hot chocolate in your hand. For me, this was totally a lie-down, curl up in a blanket, and read for hours until it is done, kind of a book.
The Guardian called Burial Rites ‘the announcement of a writer to watch’, and they’re absolutely right.
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