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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?
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.
37 of 38 people found this review helpful
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.
14 of 14 people found this review helpful
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.<br/>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.
11 of 11 people found this review helpful
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?
20 of 21 people found this review helpful
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.
8 of 8 people found this review helpful
I picked up Burial Rites, this first novel by Hannah Kent just yesterday and finished it today. Yes, I thought it was great. It seems that historical fiction is really a favourite genre of mine these days, though I've always liked it, even before I knew it was called that, in the days when a book was a book to me, with no categories to make me wonder what was "right" or "wrong" or "high" or "low" literature. This story takes place in Iceland, and is based on the true story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, who was the last person in Iceland proper to receive the death sentence. She was beheaded in 1830 on the charge that she had—together with a conspirator, a young man called Friðrik Sigurðsson (also executed the same day)—murdered two men, Nathan Ketilsson, a farmer and local healer and also Agnes' employer, and Pétur Jónsson. This story begins in the year preceding Agnes' beheading, when she is sent to live in cramped quarters with a family in a small isolated farming community, where she is meant to prepare for her punishment and meet her end with the appropriate attitude of contrition and religious faith. The family are understandably outraged and horrified to be made to take in a convicted murderess, and Agnes, who has spent her life as a maid, is put to work doing the lowliest tasks. Agnes has specially requested that a young assistant priest called Tóti be her spiritual advisor, claiming that they know each other and she believes he is in the best position to help her, though the young priest is not aware of having ever met her and their connexion is only revealed quite late in the story. Tóti quickly comes to realize the best he can do for Agnes is to let her tell her own story, which is how we come to learn about the events which led up to the murder of her former employer and erstwhile lover, an event which was not as clear cut as the authorities made it out to be. It's impossible to read (or in my case, listen) to this story without growing feeling compassion and empathy for Agnes, which is also what happens to the members of the family. Of course, while the main characters and events are based on true circumstances, Hannah Kent had ample room to embroider on what might have been Agnes' inner life and motivations, though she claims to have done this based on a great deal of documentation from eyewitnesses and people who knew the convicted woman. A very promising start for Hannah Kent, and I will be looking forward to what she comes up with next. Of course it's a very touching story, and one which was a very fitting follow-up to Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks, which I finished just a few days ago. Interestingly enough, in her acknowledgments, Kent gives special thanks to Brooks for her role as a mentor, something I did not know about till I got to the very end. I just love it when this kind of reading synchronicity happens!
I have to make a special mention of narrator Morven Christie, whom I first discovered with Code Name Verity—another much recommended book—, who read the story with great compassion and feeling, and a real sense of intimacy. She is now among my favourites, and I look forward to her next projects too.
15 of 16 people found this review helpful
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.
6 of 6 people found this review helpful
What did you love best about Burial Rites?
Well, the narration was breath-taking for a moment I could imagine myself part of a movie. I myself could not have done better and I have done narration in the past. Next, there is a good storyline, at times, a bit predictable but that did not cause any of the chapters to lose their essence. You always have the desire to find out more about Agnes' story even though sometimes you could predict what has happened. I found it hard to identify with her, maybe because I am not a woman, therefore, my conclusion that this would find better sympathy with female readers. I tried as hard but I could not find a reason to identify, I felt sorry and pitied her more than anything else. Nonetheless, I still enjoyed the book in its entirety but if it was not for the narrator Morven Christie, I would have probably not read it at all. I must say on that note, that audiobooks, helped me renew with a passion that was long gone. I had not picked up a book at a local library for years. I was disgusted by the lack of creativity out there and really a bit of the same thing constantly, pretty much like movies nowadays. I still find today's book do not engage readers sufficiently into critical thinking, oh well, it is an era of video games and TV.
What did you like best about this story?
Agnes strength, throughout the years was very much appreciated. Her loneliness and injustices done to her were not on the other hand. However, more could have been done to save her, but that's understandable in 18-19th century Europe. Many across the land had similar fate, some without even a trial. At least, she's got one.
Which character – as performed by Morven Christie – was your favorite?
I really liked Tóti but I found him to soft in dealing with Agnes...particularly not telling her about his feelings for her and how much he desired her but I would also guess that was a consequence of his status as priest or reverend.
Was this a book you wanted to listen to all in one sitting?
5 of 5 people found this review helpful
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.
5 of 5 people found this review helpful
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.
3 of 3 people found this review helpful