Reviews||

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

9th Sep 2013

★★★★★
Burial Rites
We take a look at Hannah Kent's intriguing début that won her a place on the Waterstones Eleven list of rising literary stars.

On the night of 14th March 1829, Natan Ketilsson and Petur Jonsson’s bodies are discovered in the charred remains of Illugastadir farm. When closer examinations of the corpses reveal knife wounds that were no accident, fingers are quickly pointed at Agnes Magnusdottir, Natan’s lover.

Agnes is quickly lead to trial by the over-zealous District Commissioner, alongside the two teenagers she is said to have forced to help her. Sentenced and awaiting death, she is sent to Kornsa farm and the Jonssons, who are less than happy about sheltering a murderess in their family badstofa.

There is something so elemental about Burial Rites that it is difficult to capture; it haunts and permeates the senses like fire pit smoke, lingering in the memory for days after finishing.But, as Agnes starts to tell her story to the naive young priest assigned to bring her to God in her final months, Margret and her daughters begin to understand not everything is as it seems. Can popular opinion be changed? Even when it suits so many people to believe the murders to be purely the work of a jealous and evil lover?

Based on the true story of the notorious Illugastadir murders, and weaving tightly in and out of Agnes’ past and bleak present, it’s unsurprising that Burial Rites made the Waterstones Eleven 2013 – their list of the 11 most promising fiction débuts of the year.

It’s taken Hannah Kent many years of research to create, but she became an ‘overnight’ sensation when this début novel sparked a bidding war.

And it’s so transporting you can practically feel the bitter Icelandic winds scraping your cheeks as you read. It is taut with waiting, with misunderstandings, with the tension between the harshness of of the earth they work on and the more supernatural beliefs of the time.

There is something so elemental about Burial Rites that it is difficult to capture; it haunts and permeates the senses like fire pit smoke, lingering in the memory for days after finishing.

The isolation of the farms in Northern Iceland comes across keenly in Hannah Kent’s writing and creates an incredible intimacy between the characters and the reader.

And, for a début novel this is brilliantly clean. Barely a single page of the 363 seems superfluous. Hannah Kent drips details of Agnes’ life onto the page like so many drops of blood and while she isn’t immediately a sympathetic character, Agnes is nevertheless rendered so real and so interesting by Kent that you race through the pages with a burning need to know her fate. Even if you’re not a fan of historical fiction, this is not one to miss.

Laura Tosney