Burial Rites by Hannah Kent



I have to read this book for our September bookclub, which is doing a double-meeting with this and The Rabbit Back Literature Society. Now, that sounds more ungenerous than I wanted it to. I wanted to read this book anyway and choosing it as a bookclub book gave me a legitimate reason to buy and read it.
It is set in early 19th century Iceland, at that time a dependency of Denmark and based on real events that happened in 1829 when the last execution for murder took place on Icelandic ground.


Agnes Magnussdottir has been found guilty of murdering two men and is being held in a private house in preparation for her execution. The family have to have a murderess living in their small house and to deal daily with the fear, hatred and distrust that they feel. A young and inexperienced  priest has been appointed to prepare Agnes for her fate and when he comes as often as possible he finds the best way to deal with Agnes is not to preach, or to share tracts of scripture, but to let her talk. And so she does.
Glumbaer
How the houses in Iceland used to look; from the Picador blog.

The book is told either in the third person, allowing us to see the actions of Toti and the other people around Agnes or in the first person by Agnes herself. Very often the things Agnes and Toti talk about are expanded on and clarified by Agnes' monologues. You gain an insight into her life as a pauper, her work on various farms and the history that brought her to Natan's small holding. We are told the public version of events, through conversations or through chapter prologues that are official papers or letters, and we get an experience of other people's reactions to Agnes, but we only realise the whole story through Agnes herself. We know what the inevitable ending will be, but we still seek a different ending.
Traditional badstofa
The Badstofa would have looked like this; everybody asleep in one room.
I enjoyed the book a lot. I thought that the characters were well-drawn and not caricatures. The relationships between them are conveyed well, and the subtleties of attitude changes were portrayed without fanfare. The descriptions of Iceland don't exactly encourage me to want to visit; it's bleak, cold and dark for a lot of the year. The Icelanders live in small dirt houses with little privacy and less possessions and the concept of isolation is palpable. It really does become another character in the story, as if the murders would not have happened if Agnes lived elsewhere. I'm looking forward to discussing it at our bookclub. It was not an easy read, but it was a compelling one.
Picador have a photoessay showing sites named in the book. Looking at these brings the story even more to life, although I have to say I had the pictures in my mind that looked like these anyway, so well-described are the events.
What is also impressive is that it's a literary debut; hopefully Hannah Kent will write more of the same calibre. The book has been well-received and boasts an impressive list of awards and nominations;

WINNER OF THE ABIA LITERARY FICTION BOOK OF THE YEAR 2014
WINNER OF THE ABA NIELSEN BOOKDATA BOOKSELLER'S CHOICE AWARD 2014
WINNER OF THE FAW CHRISTINA STEAD AWARD 2013
WINNER OF THE 2014 INDIE AWARDS DEBUT FICTION OF THE YEAR
WINNER OF THE VICTORIAN PREMIER’S LITERARY AWARD PEOPLE’S CHOICE AWARD 2014
SHORTLISTED FOR THE STELLA PRIZE 2014
SHORTLISTED FOR THE BAILEYS WOMEN’S PRIZE FOR FICTION 2014
SHORTLISTED FOR THE VICTORIAN PREMIER’S PRIZE FOR FICTION 2014
SHORTLISTED FOR THE ALS GOLD MEDAL 2014
SHORTLISTED FOR THE GUARDIAN FIRST BOOK AWARD 2013

SHORTLISTED FOR THE NIB WAVERLEY AWARD FOR LITERATURE 2013

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