Hannah Kent

Burial Rites

""...an accomplished piece of writing for a first novel." "


This is the story of Agnes Magnusdottir, a young Icelandic woman who, in 1824, is sentenced to death for the murder of her employer and lover. As there are no suitable prisons in Iceland, she awaits execution in the home of District Officer Jon Jonsson and his wife and two daughters. They are horrified at the idea of having a convicted killer in their home and are reluctant to interact with her in any way. Agnes asks for Toti, an assistant priest she has had only fleeting contact with, to be with her at her execution and to provide spiritual comfort.

The fierce winter and the sparse living conditions of the Jonnson family echo the grim reality of Agnes' fate. The story of what actually happened to Agnes is slowly revealed and as it does, she makes her mark with at least some of her gaolers as they come to see the good side of her character.

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This is a bleak and unrelenting story about the terrible things that could happen to those on the lowest rungs of society, particularly to women. Agnes' story is not listened to and everywhere her guilt is assumed. Her whole life has been a struggle and whenever she feels that she is cared for and cherished, circumstances and people conspire to take everything from her again. The chilling factor in all this is that it is entirely believable and the bare bones of the case are based on fact. Hannah Kent discovered Agnes' story when she herself was spending time in Iceland on an exchange programme. The tale caught her imagination as Agnes' isolation in society reverberated with her own position as a stranger in a land where the landscape and language were alien to her. Kent's writing is beautiful and sensitive and appears to have been written from the heart. The intricate way in which we gradually learn what has happened to Agnes is cleverly and expertly handled. I did enjoy this book immensely and found it such an accomplished piece of writing for a first novel. It is always exciting to discover a new author and I will definitely keep my ear to the ground about Hannah Kent. I expect great future novels from Kent as she hones and refines her chosen craft.

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