Burial Rites is Hannah Kent’s debut novel, and focuses on the true story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, sent to live with a family while a death sentence looms over her for the murder of local eccentric Natan Ketilsson. There had been quite a lot of hype about this book before its release, so I’d been looking forward to this one for a while.
Historical fiction is always a tricky mix of fact and speculation. Kent spent some time in the local area as a teenager and has done a lot of research, with support from many Icelanders particularly with translations. This helps to make the book feel very “real” and authentic when presenting the facts.
Kent is also very skilled in making the large cast of characters come alive. The first half of the book is about the people around Agnes, and helps to build the suspense for the reader wondering what actually happened on the night of the murder. The second half of the book became a real page-turner for me as we hear Agnes’s story at last. She finds a sympathetic ear in young priest Tóti, who has been appointed her spiritual guardian and vows to stand by her until the end, no matter what the outcome. We find out what Agnes’s life was like when she was staying in Natan’s house and unwittingly became part of an unfortunate “love square” involving the other two parties (Friðrik and Sigriður) that are also facing a death sentence for Natan’s murder. We also discover that she was an unwanted child who was always on the move in her early years. She becomes a complete character in the telling of her story.
This is one of those rare books that I don’t have any criticisms for. It took me quite a while to get through it but this was only because the book is too cleverly written to try and read a few pages of at a time. A real classic!
Quentin Bates has written an interesting article about this episode in Icelandic history which is well worth a read, but don’t read until you’ve finished the book if you don’t know the final outcome of this story!