Burial Rites is Hannah Kent’s first novel and what a great novel it is! Burial Rites is based on the true story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir and is set in rural Iceland in 1829. Agnes is awaiting execution for the murder of her former employer and his friend, not in a prison—there are none in the area—but at a local family’s farm. Jón Jónsson, the owner of the farm, grudgingly accepts this thankless task as part of his responsibility as a regional official. His wife and daughters’ reactions range from silent resentment to outright fear and curiosity. Agnes also requests the company of a young priest, to whom she confesses parts of her story, while narrating the full tale only to the reader, who, like the priest, provide her with a final audience to her life’s lonely narrative.
The story is not a page turner, but is compelling and hard to put down. Kent paints a sympathetic and complex portraits of Agnes, the Jónssons, and the young priest, and an interesting portrait of a small farming community in Iceland in the early 19th Century. You may be left wondering, as I was, at how very different the people of the 21st Century are from theses dutiful, caring people of long ago Iceland. We don’t necessarily live in a better world.
Book Details: Published by Little, Brown and Company (September 10, 2013), 336 pages, ISBN: 0316243914.