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Book Review: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent (4/5)

19 Aug

I learned about this book when I was getting ready for my trip to Iceland. I would have loved for it to be available as audio for me to listen to during the trip but no such luck. I was able to finally get through the CD audio recently and I wish I’d been able to experience it while in Iceland but now I just want to go back.

Cover image via Goodreads

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Summary from Goodreads:

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.

Riveting and rich with lyricism, Burial Rites evokes a dramatic existence in a distant time and place, and asks the question, how can one woman hope to endure when her life depends upon the stories told by others?

I wasn’t sure how I would feel about this book but the characters were really well-drawn and the plot was well-paced. I started caring for Agnes and the family almost immediately. I knew there was something sketchy about the story from how Agnes responded to her sentence and how quiet she was. The pace of finding out was great and I was drawn in by Kent’s storytelling. I really enjoyed the setting as this is the first book I’ve read set in Iceland. Having visited, it was even more vivid for me.

I didn’t realize until the end that the characters were drawn from historical figures. I liked the author’s note describing how Kent chose to interpret them and I appreciated the explanation about other ways these people have been viewed. I thought the Agnes presented was wonderfully deep and the way the story unfolded around her was very real and compelling. The other characters added to the world, but Agnes was a wonderful leading figure.

I liked Tóti a lot. He was much more like a modern priest than the priests of his time and it was interesting to see him in contrast to his father and the district commissioner. I liked his approach to Agnes and I think she responded to it so well because it was different. She didn’t need more people yelling at her about how she was a sinner and how she needed to repent. She needed someone to listen to her story. It seemed very natural for her to tell the story and I’m glad she was able to eventually finish it, even if it wasn’t with Tóti.

I’ve had my opinion of people changed by meeting them like Tóti and the family did. I appreciated that Agnes could change their minds about her by being herself and sharing her story. The rumors about here were terrible but the truth she shared was beautiful. It showed the power of the truth and how the ‘media’ can warp it. In this case, the district commissioner and a court. I wonder what she said in the courtroom because it sounds like her story wasn’t shared.

Hannah Kent
Image via the New York Times

I thought the book picked up after Agnes started talking about her life and the time she was with Natan. Natan was a complicated character and at first, you’re so sad he’s died but then you start to question if he was a good person. Of course, death is always sad but it’s sadder when a person is innocent of any wrongdoing. As the truth about Natan comes out, you start to wonder if his death is extra-sad or normal-sad and your feelings started to change. It was very well written.

The beginning dragged for me a bit. There was a lot of description and development of the relationship between the two daughters and I felt like that didn’t really go anywhere. I wish there’d been a little more about their relationship and the different ways they felt about Agnes but it seemed that the author wanted to focus on something else and left a lot out there that could have been great.

The audiobook I listened to was narrated by Morven Christie. She was amazing. I don’t speak Icelandic except for ‘tak’ (thanks) but I know it’s an incredibly hard language to learn. I tried learning a few phrases before visiting and didn’t get past ‘hello’ before I gave up. It has a certain sound to it, a cadence that I can’t replicate but do recognize. Christie clearly knows (or is great at faking) Icelandic because her pronunciation of names, places, and poems was amazing. I was really impressed and found her performance impressive and beautiful. She gave great weight to Agnes’s sorrow and pain. I’d love to hear her read again.

Guilt is an odd thing. While Agnes was involved in Natan’s death, was she to blame for it? Could she have stopped it and was her role in it worthy of the punishment she was dealt? Agnes wasn’t innocent, but was she guilty? I thought this book played with that grey area well and it took the whole book for me to make a decision about her and be swayed.

Writer’s Takeaway: The location in this book shines. Kent did an amazing job of making me aware of the geography and weather of Iceland and how a family in the 1820s could deal with that harsh environment. I adored the way she described the small valley and traveling around it. I could picture it so vividly. I was so impressed.

I really enjoyed this book and I look forward to more from Kent in the future. Four out of Five Stars.

Until next time, write on.

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