A teenage Hannah Kent first visited Iceland on a Rotary Exchange. It must have had a profound effect on her, as some years later she has written this curious and enchanting book set in North Iceland in 1829.
Kent tells the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, a young woman sentenced to death for her part in the murder of Natan Ketilsson and Pétur Jónnsson on Vatnsnes peninsula. Agnes is remanded to a remote farm to be supervised by district officer Jón Jónsson whilst she awaits her fate. This decision causes much consternation with Jón’s family and the small community in which they live, but their fears of living with a murderess might just be unfounded.
Agnes was the last person to be executed in Iceland. I’m not going to retell the story here; the author does a much better job than I ever could, and besides, I wouldn’t want to spoil it for you, would I?
The characters are well formed and realistic. Agnes in particular is well written, and I suspect that her voice will be in my head for days after finishing this book. This may well be due to the author basing the story and therefore the characters on fact, and the subsequent in-depth and clearly skillful research she has carried out. This is reinforced by factual documents being reproduced throughout the text; for example, the correspondence from Björn Blöndal, District Commissioner.
Kent sometimes uses overly poetic language when describing, to say it is grating would be a gross overstatement, but it does occasionally jar. This is a minor quibble though, and nothing that detracts from the overall enjoyment of the book
Burial Rites has received glowing reviews from the world over, and rightly so; the story is well told and provides a vivid canvas for the author to paint her descriptions of North Iceland, complete with volcanic landscapes, frequent snow, tumbling turf houses and luminous Northern Lights. She quite clearly had been bitten by the Iceland bug too, one which I’m all too familiar, and this shines through her prose. I don’t think anyone could have written so well about Iceland without falling in love with the country first.
In conclusion, Burial Rites is a book well worth reading; Agnes will live in your head, and it’s chilly landscapes and intriguing story will make you clutch your mug of coffee just a little tighter on a cold winters day.
Originally published on Iceland Review Online.