Burial Rites, the first novel by author Hannah Kent, transports readers to 19th-century Iceland as the gripping and often bleak story of one woman’s suffering gradually unfolds.
This is an incredibly atmospheric novel. As a reader, you truly feel like you’re there in Iceland witnessing all of the events first-hand. It is evident that Kent did an extraordinary amount of research on the subject of her novel, which is indeed based off the very real Agnes Magnúsdóttir, who is infamously known as the last person in Iceland to be publicly executed. Every page is dripping with details that allow the reader to become acquainted with what life in Iceland was like in the 1800s.
Agnes as a character is many things. She’s complex – confessional yet ambiguous, emotional yet cold, likable but also unlikable. She’s also been branded as a murderess and is destined for beheading since she has been ruled guilty of the murder of two men. I liked how Kent didn’t cast this character as a complete sob story, though there are many aspects of Agnes’s personal history that intended to pull on the heartstrings of readers. One minute she’s sympathetic, the next she’s morally dubious.
As Agnes is sent to live with a poor farming family as she awaits her execution date, she slowly has to adjust to the family dynamic. Luckily, with her background as a maid, she soon becomes a vital member of the household. Agnes receives varying degrees of welcome from the family members, who all were, understandably, unenthusiastic about being forced to keep a criminal in their home. Then there is Agnes’s spiritual advisor, Toti, who seems to only function as her sounding board as she gradually unravels the mess that is her past. Agnes’s past is given to readers in small, bite-sized pieces. Her story is not a happy one.
This story moved slow. I would not classify it as sluggish, but this was a story that wanted to take its sweet time in being told. Though I could understand the reasoning behind this pacing decision since it did indeed allow suspense to build, it was hard to flip through some sections that seemed to contain almost zero action or advancement of the plot – and this is coming from someone who typically loves more character-driven novels. For some reason, the lack of something actually happening was constantly on my mind throughout reading this book.
The thing I was the most disappointed with was the writing. Yes, Kent did a fantastic job of bringing atmospheric details – a small country home on the urge of falling apart, the bitter isolation faced on an Icelandic farm, etc. – to life, but her writing as a whole did not go above and beyond. It was not compelling, colorful, or experimental, and it actually did fall flat more often than I would have liked. A few pages in, I even considered casting it aside as tried to adjust to a prose that I viewed as stiff and almost robotic.
Overall, this was a powerful story. I learned about a woman with an incredible story as well as gained a better perspective of a captivating country. However, I can’t ignore the fact that a lot of aspects – pacing, writing style, etc. – held it back from being a truly amazing read. I was surprised when I saw it had a rather high rating on Goodreads and was flooded with beaming reviews, so I suppose I’m in the minority with this book. Don’t get me wrong, this was not a bad book and does not deserve to be panned, but I want to emphasize that it was just an average novel in my opinion.