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Burial Rites

A Novel
Narrated by: Morven Christie
Length: 11 hrs and 59 mins
Categories: Fiction, Literary
4.5 out of 5 stars (1,624 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

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.

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?

©2013 Hannah Kent (P)2013 Little, Brown and Company

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  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars

Hauntingly beautiful and tragic tale

Several weeks ago, I was lucky enough to come across the perfect book at the perfect time, and it has happened again with Burial Rites. The bleak, gray, and icy grip of winter here has provided the perfect backdrop for Hannah Kent's incredibly well-written debut novel. She tells the tragic story of maidservant Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last person executed in Iceland in 1830 after she and two others were convicted of killing Natan Ketilsson and neighbor Pétur Jónsson. Because there were no prisons in Iceland, Agnes is sent to live and work with District Officer Jón Jónsson, his wife, and two daughters on their farm. We come to know Agnes and her story through her talks with her spiritual advisor, young reverend Tóti, who is meant to prepare Agnes for her punishment so she can meet her end with contrition.

Kent has researched her topics well, and writes about the details of water-collecting, knitting socks, making blood sausage, shearing, lambing, and slaughter that make life on the farm difficult on a good day. She never hits the reader over the head with these illustrative details, but they are presented simply as an integral part of the story.

The narrator, Morven Christie, is superb, in her pronunciation of Icelandic names, timbre, and emotion. I was tempted to give Burial Rites four stars, but Christie's narration makes it a five-star listen. This is a book that will stay with me for quite a while.

119 of 120 people found this review helpful

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    4 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars

A dark love letter to Iceland...

Burial Rites is the fictionalized account of a real woman, Agnes Magnúsdóttir, who on 12 January, 1830, became the last individual to be executed in Iceland. The prisoner and convicted murderess was placed in the home of local official Jón Jónsson while awaiting her fate. The novel follows her days as she works alongside Jónsson and his family and talks with Tóti, the young assistant priest who is charged with returning her to God's grace. Slowly her story emerges to contradict and complicate the tales told about her and her role in the violent murder of her former master.

Hannah Kent's ten years of research produced this Kent "speculative biography," which she describes as her "dark love letter to Iceland." It is nuanced and evocative, claustrophobic and melancholy, and utterly engrossing. Kent draws an intimate portrait of Icelandic culture of the early nineteenth century (including not only the "usual suspects" such as the Sagas and Christianity and the clash between education and superstition, but also well-informed insights on the plight of orphans and paupers and servants, and the power of rumor and speculation in a reputation-based society). The psychological depth and elegant prose of this work are impressive (as is Morven Christie's expert narration). I will be looking for more from Kent.

38 of 38 people found this review helpful

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I started out hating this. Emphasis on STARTED.

I started out thinking I would never get through it. The characters, the settings, the descriptions of grinding poverty, ice and snow, winds that howl and people who live in tight little balls of misery being brutalized by religious hypocrites with terrible power.

Then came Agnes. Once the story shifted to her narrative I was dragged in very slowly, like a leg into Quicksand followed by every other body part. I am a sucker for a story and every word began to sear my soul, enrage my mind and break my heart. As this true story wound to its historically accurate end, I was there for every step, every smell, and every sound echoing in that desperate valley. It left me drained and changed.

58 of 59 people found this review helpful

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Cannot stop thinking about this book

This book had been on my "to-listen" list for a while when I finally decided to pick it up right before a vacation to Iceland. Since it took place there, it felt like the perfect lead-in to my trip, and I hoped I might even learn a thing or two about the country itself. I certainly was not prepared for how much I was going to fall in love with this beautiful, emotionally devastating story. Months later, I find I still can’t stop thinking about it.

Burial Rites tells the fictionalized story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, a real woman who was sentenced to execution for her role in the murder of two men in 1928. Author Hannah Kent couldn't have set the scene more perfectly. Her descriptions of the harsh, bleak Icelandic landscape brilliantly captured the mood of the novel, making me feel like I had been there before my plane even landed. Her prose is rich with vibrant (and sometimes uncomfortable) detail, immersing the listener in the story completely through all five senses. It was mind-blowing to me that this was Kent's debut novel – I'll be eagerly awaiting her next.

The real star of the book was narrator Morven Christie, who absolutely nailed the unique pronunciations and sounds of the Icelandic language (I even referred back to the audiobook when trying to pronounce certain street & town names – she was THAT good). Her characterizations were so spot-on that at times I had to remind myself that she was the only one reading. In a book that shifts perspectives from chapter to chapter, her skillfully nuanced voice carried the story along effortlessly.

It sounds strange, but I wish I could somehow magically forget this book just so I could experience it again for the first time. But with a story and performance so unforgettable, that’s just not likely any time soon.

144 of 148 people found this review helpful

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  • Sand
  • Tampa, FL, United States
  • 10-22-13

An escapist treat

If you loved Little House in the Big Woods or Girl with the Pearl Earring, stop reading and download right now, because you will loooove this. (I'm not kidding--you can thank me later.)
This is not to diminish the unraveling story or real-life plight of protagonist Agnes Magnusdottir-- --which is fascinating and mysterious on its own- but the details Kent provides about everyday life in early 19th C Iceland are, for history buffs, seriously delicious.
The writing is beautiful and the narration is top-notch--I'm guessing Morven Christie put in a considerable amount of time to get the scenes and pronunciation right, and it definitely shows. She's flawless!
This novel transports you to another time and place, while also connecting you to real events and persons.
What more could you want?

58 of 60 people found this review helpful

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  • Beth Anne
  • Philadelphia, PA, United States
  • 02-24-14

Chilling. Quiet. Amazing.

in the middle of an isolated Iceland farm, the true story of Agnes' crime is told...along with her last year of life before her execution.

agnes is one of the most riveting and upsetting characters i've read in a long time. her voice (in intermittent chapters) is so true and sad and doomed. as she shifts from prisoner, to farmhand, to a member of the family -- i grew to love Agnes so much as a person. as i read, i knew where she was headed -- but of course i was hoping the entire time her fate would change.

really well written book, smart in how it portrays relationships and the changes in perceptions and opinions (both in agnes' past and in her present)...brilliant in it's quiet stark sentences. i loved it.

ps...the fact that this is a true story makes it even more chilling and sad.

28 of 29 people found this review helpful

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  • Robyn
  • Calgary, AB, Canada
  • 10-15-13

Somber but Beautiful

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. The characters are wonderfully developed and the story is engaging. I've just finished it and my heart feels full.

20 of 21 people found this review helpful

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  • Lesley
  • LAWRENCE, KS, United States
  • 10-31-13

Nearly Perfect

I luxuriated in this darkly poetic novel, loving its historical richness, the beauty of the Icelandic scenery, and the drama of Agnes's story and character. The narration was superb overall with a few overplayed moments. The same is true of the novel's language: always detailed and often surprising, Kent's descriptions occasionally overreached. Still, listening to this was a great experience. I had to pause the novel several times because Agnes's experiences were too intense. I expect that Anges, Nathan, and the reverend will stick with me for a long time.

18 of 19 people found this review helpful

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  • Yvonne
  • Austin, TX, United States
  • 10-02-13

One of the absolutely Best Books

Would you consider the audio edition of Burial Rites to be better than the print version?

Can not answer that

Who was your favorite character and why?

Agnes is a individual who had me in gripping sadness. I realize life was much harder with weather and very few of the comforts we have now but the loss of a mother so young and the inability to have little rights of=r say on your future was reportedly heavy.
How could one go on for so may years with little appreciation for one's work and kindness and never feeling safe or secure in knowing you have home and food is thought provoking.

Any additional comments?

The author gave a balanced review of Agnes's life and left me with many nights thinking of Agnes and her grief. I could not get this character out of my thoughts. How she endured her life sentence and how she offered kindness and life saving tactics while waiting for that last day. There was so much passion in the story as well as care in presenting many actual happenings from here historical investigations.

24 of 26 people found this review helpful

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Beyond Dickensian

Not finished with this book but I wanted to warn those who might be depressed to avoid the story. It's beautifully written and an intriguing story but oh so bleak! that might be the goal here but it becomes heavier with each listen. Better to read Amy Tan's latest novel The Valley of Amazement"..heavy content done lightly.

23 of 25 people found this review helpful