BURIAL RITES by Hannah Kent
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BURIAL RITES

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KIRKUS REVIEW

With language flickering, sparkling and flashing like the northern lights, Kent debuts with a study of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, an Icelandic servant convicted of an 1828 murder.

The murder was horrific: two men bludgeoned, stabbed and burned. Agnes and two others were convicted, but sentences—Agnes was to be beheaded—require confirmation by Denmark’s royal government. Kent opens her powerful narrative with Agnes, underfed and unwashed, being moved from district capital imprisonment to Kornsá, a valley farmstead. Stoic, dutiful Jón and his tubercular wife, Margrét, are forced by circumstance to accept her charge. Reflecting intimate research, the story unfolds against the fearsome backdrop of 19th-century Icelandic life. It's a primitive world where subsistence farmers live in crofts—dirt-floored, turf-roofed hovels—and life unfolds in badstofa, communal living/sleeping rooms. Beautiful are Kent’s descriptions of the interminable summer light, the ever-present snow and ice and cold of winter’s gloomy darkness, the mountains, sea and valleys where sustenance is blood-rung from sheep. Assistant Rev. Thorvardur has been assigned to "direct this murderess to the way of truth and repentance," but he is more callow youth than counselor. His sessions with Agnes come and go, and he becomes enamored of Agnes and obsessed by her life’s struggles. Kent deftly reveals the mysterious relationship between Agnes, a servant girl whom valley folk believe a "[b]astard pauper with a conniving spirit," and now-dead Natan Ketilsson, a healer, some say a sorcerer, for whom she worked as a housekeeper. Kent writes movingly of Natan’s seduction of the emotionally stunted Agnes—"When the smell of him, of sulphur and crushed herbs, and horse-sweat and the smoke from his forge, made me dizzy with pleasure"—his heartless manipulation and his cruel rejection. The narrative is revealed in third person, interspersed with Agnes’ compelling first-person accounts. The saga plays out in a community sometimes revenge-minded and sometimes sympathetic, with Margrét moving from angry rejection to near love, Agnes ever stoic and fearful, before the novel reaches an inevitable, realistic and demanding culmination.

A magical exercise in artful literary fiction.

Pub Date: Sept. 10th, 2013
ISBN: 978-0-316-24391-9
Page count: 336pp
Publisher: Little, Brown
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15th, 2013




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