Burial Rites

Written by Hannah Kent
Review by Marina Maxwell

Agnes Magnusdottir has been found guilty of murder. As the authorities wrangle over the date and method of her execution, she is sent to work on the farm of District Officer Jon Jonsson to await her fate. Jon’s wife Margret is shocked and angry, and their two daughters have differing opinions of her. Can this reserved woman really be guilty of such a shocking deed? Are their own lives in jeopardy?


To add to the family’s apprehension, Agnes is adamant that the only person she will accept as her counsellor is the inexperienced young clergyman, Toti, who struggles to find a way to salvage her immortal soul. Agnes’ private thoughts and memories are woven throughout the narrative, and they gradually reveal her solitary past and the fateful decisions that led to her situation.

This book takes you to remote and inhospitable places and creates powerful images that will long linger in the mind. Ravens circling overhead. Dark winters and cold grey seas. Brooding ice-bound mountains. Farmers leading a hardscrabble existence on the edges of civilization. In the claustrophobic communal living and sleeping arrangements of the badstofa, religious faith sits uneasily with superstitions that date back to the sagas, and people are still at the mercy of omens and dreams, cruel gossip and closed minds.

burial-rites-ukA true story from 19th-century Iceland adapted by an author from Australia may seem a strange combination, as there couldn’t be two more disparate countries in many ways, but Hannah Kent’s beautiful prose demonstrates both consummate writing skill and an inherent understanding of what life is like in isolated and forbidding landscapes. Whenever a novel generates pre-publication excitement, it can be difficult to give it a fair assessment, but in this case the hype is more than warranted. Superb and highly recommended.