Burial Rites is the stunning debut novel by Australian author Hannah Kent.  The novel tells the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir as she awaits her execution for her part in the brutal murder of two men. It is set in Iceland in 1829 and plays over her last few months, which she lives out on the farm of district officer Jón Jónsson, his wife and their two daughters. The family is horrified to have a murderer under their roof.

The narrative is very lucid and intense. Kent uses some very beautiful metaphors as she slowly and carefully peels away the characters backstories with great depth and passion. Kent mulls over the language like the stone Agnes holds beneath her tongue, playing with them and shaping them to her own purpose. No characters are strictly good or evil, the author takes time to make the characters multidimensional and flawed. The novel is told from multiple perspectives; from the priests bumbling account, to the wary and sick mother, Margret, but it is clear that this novel is essentially Agnes’s story.

The novel highlights the archaic idea that women who can read, have knowledge – and without a man to control them – are dangerous, witchlike even. Kent is aware that today this idea is absurd and unjust, leading us to sympathise with her. However, the way in which the media shapes everyone’s ideas eerily resonates with today’s society. Because of this, the real Agnes from history was left without a voice, the marginalised other, silenced by history. Here, Kent gives her a chance to speak again, so that her story does not get forgotten. Her story is also backed up and given a greater sense of reality by the letters, poems and historical documents that are also found within the novel. These all help to tell the story, but it is clear that Agnes was not given her own voice in these accounts.

This novel is deeply moving and emotional. Kent masterfully brings the readers into the harsh surroundings of Iceland in the 1800’s, maintaining the suspense and drama right until the very end.

This novel is based on the true story of the last woman executed in Iceland.


By Jessica Reid

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