Review

Burial Rites

by Hannah Kent

Australian author Hannah Kent makes her debut with BURIAL RITES. This riveting, historically based novel deals with a fictionalized retelling of the final months of a young Icelandic woman named Agnes Magnusdottir, who was executed for murder in 1830. As a teenager, Kent traveled to Iceland, where she first heard Agnes’s story. The fact that Agnes was the last female to be executed in Iceland intrigued Kent, and she has done years of research in preparation for putting together a novel based on her final days.

In 1838, Natan Ketilsson and Petur Jonsson were murdered, allegedly at the hands of two farmhands, Fridrik Sigurdsson and Agnes Magnusdottir. Even though accounts claim that Agnes was only present while Fredrik physically committed the murders, she was still tried alongside him and each sentenced to execution by beheading.

"The novel is very close to a work of art and deals with a compelling situation with effortlessness. Kent’s style of writing is grounded in literary fiction and will call to mind the work of authors like Jane Austen and Margaret Atwood."

While Agnes was awaiting execution, she was sent to live out her final days under the watch of an Icelandic farmer and his family. Jon Jonsson and his wife, Margret, are tasked by District Commissioner Bjorn Blondal to house Agnes until preparations for execution have been finalized. Jon and Margret are reluctant, but as Jon holds a council seat, he is obligated to go along with Blondal’s decision. Prison space was extremely limited at this time, and all of these decisions were made under the rule of Denmark. Initially, Jon and Margret are highly skeptical of having a murderess sharing their home and especially concerned with how this will impact their own daughters. Still, the farm has to be run and chores completed --- so Margret eventually allows Agnes to assist with these matters as she had prior experience working on different farms.

Slowly, the distance between Jon’s family and Agnes begins to dwindle as they start to see Agnes as a young woman and not a monster. Part of her stay is to include regular spiritual guidance meetings with a local priest. Father Toti, as he is called, is young himself but more than prepared to act as Agnes’s spiritual ambassador. What starts out as sessions meant to provide religious guidance to prepare Agnes for execution turns into something quite different. Father Toti begins to listen to Agnes’s story, from childhood straight through the alleged murder she was convicted of.  The family overhears these sessions as they are taking place inside their small home, and all are amazed at the tale Agnes has to tell. It is here where Kent deftly spins out the life of Agnes and the incident on which this book is based. It is up to the reader to bear witness and make their own moral judgment as to what should be done with Agnes.

Father Toti hears from outsiders that the men who were killed were reprehensible and suspicious characters. Natan had a reputation of being evil and in league with the devil himself, while Petur had been jailed for viciously slaughtering dozens of sheep. Could their murders have been justified?

BURIAL RITES will entertain readers while recounting the life of a complex young woman and is certain to receive literary accolades, which would be well earned. There is already a film treatment in discussion that would reunite Hunger Games director Gary Ross with Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence in the role of Agnes. If that comes to fruition, it will certainly be a movie worth seeing.

The novel is very close to a work of art and deals with a compelling situation with effortlessness. Kent’s style of writing is grounded in literary fiction and will call to mind the work of authors like Jane Austen and Margaret Atwood. Agnes’s story, in Kent’s hands, is impossible to put down and will instantly draw the reader in until the final page is turned.

Reviewed by Ray Palen on November 15, 2013

Burial Rites
by Hannah Kent