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Burial Rites

They said I must die. They said I stole the breath from men, and now they must steal mine.


A brilliant literary debut, inspired by a true story: the final days of a young woman accused of murder in Iceland in 1829. 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 Tóti, 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.”


I won a copy of this book via a Goodreads giveaway from Little, Brown. It was one I wasn’t that interested in, but I nevertheless liked it, and I was glad that I had won the giveaway. It’s kind of part of that new phenomenon: the literary crime novel. 


Iceland is an interesting country, and though I’m not sure how historically accurate Bural Rites was, the world of nineteenth century Iceland was described well, with its harshness and its beautiful landscape. The book was easy to get into, with a nice layout at least in the ARC. I liked the cover too. Within sections, there are breaks in the text to switch narration from third person to Agnes’s point of view. It was a bit odd at first, but not that confusing as the switch was pretty clear. It definitely helped the book’s crafting to have multiple narrations; one can sympathize with all of the characters: the family who is forced to take Agnes in is horrified, terrified, and rightly so. She is a murderess, after all. But obviously there was some provocation, obviously she is a complex human being, and the family that takes her in just can’t see that. After all, they’ve heard an awful story of murder. 


Burial Rites was pretty predictable; I was pretty sure I knew basically why those two men (who were by no means good people) were killed, and I was for the most part right. I don’t think anyone deserves to die, and murder is murder, but still…It’s something I talked about briefly in my review of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. Does the character of the person who was murdered count for how harsh the punishment be? It shouldn’t really; it’s entirely subjective, and in the eyes of law and fact, the murder of a bad and a good person is just the same. That’s kind of one of the issues in Burial Rites too; more of an issue is what is going to happen to Agnes, and whether she’ll ever be accepted by the family that she’s staying with before her inevitable execution. 


I liked Burial Rites, but truth be told, I don’t have a whole lot to say about it. Let’s see…it’s an enjoyable read, although it wasn’t that thought-provoking. I mainly liked it for its description and evocative setting of Iceland. The author herself is not Icelandic though; she’s Australian, which seemed a bit odd. I would hope that she’s at least spent some time in Iceland to really get a feel for the country. It’s hard to write a novel otherwise. You can do all the research you want, but actually being in the place is super important. 


Burial Rites had interesting characters who were actually complex, fleshed-out people; no one’s strictly bad or strictly good. Margret, the farmer’s wife, treats Agnes very badly, but she’s just worried about her daughters’ safety, as well as her own. It’s understandable, although it strikes me that being cruel to a murderess is not really a good way to ensure that she doesn’t murder you. There might be some flawed logic there. 


The first half of the book was definitely better than the second; nothing much seemed to happen in the second, and I didn’t like the ending at all.


Burial Rites was a well-written and fairly absorbing historical novel. I was happy to receive an ARC.


314 pages (in the ARC).


Rating: ***

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