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Review: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

cover29436-mediumTitle: Burial Rites

Author: Hannah Kent

Rating: 3 stars.

I received this book through NetGalley in exchange for a fair review. 

Burial Rites is a novel based on the story of the last person executed in Iceland, Agnes Magnusdotter. Convicted of the murder of her lover and another man, Agnes is sent to live with a family in the country in the months leading up to her execution. She struggles to come to terms with her fate while slowly revealing the details of her life to the family and a young priest.

The language of this novel is beautifully atmospheric. The harsh landscape comes vividly to life, and there are beautiful and unusual metaphors. “Invigorated by a sudden curl of anger…” (p. 42) “It was only later that our tongues produced landslides…” (p. 164)  “Those who are not being dragged to their deaths cannot understand how the heart grows hard and sharp, until it is a nest of rocks with only an empty egg in it.” It’s absolutely gorgeous, and definitely compelling.

But, perhaps because it’s hampered by adherence to historical events, the structure of Burial Rites is unsatisfying. Reverend Toti is set up as a major viewpoint character, but then gets sick with an unspecified illness and drops out of the book for a long time, with only scattered references to Agnes wondering where he is. The daughters of the family, Lauga and Steina, have different reactions to Agnes’s presence in their lives, and Lauga wonders if they will ever be able to marry after what she perceives as the stigma thrust upon them, but while these issues are raised they are never sufficiently dealt with. In fact, most of the characters’ plotlines felt insufficiently resolved.

And Agnes is a difficult protagonist, to say the least. Because her sections are told in first person, unlike anyone else’s, the reader is constantly forced into her head. One can certainly empathize with a woman facing execution, but after awhile it starts to feel like relentless whining and my patience as a reader wore thin. Her first person narrative contained the best writing in the book, but I couldn’t help feeling it would be better served in a short story, where I would have less chance to become annoyed with the voice.

Burial Rites is a first novel, and while it isn’t perfect, it is solid literary fiction that promises good things to come from this young writer. I found it hard to be passionate about it, but those who read lots of historical fiction will almost certainly enjoy it.

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