Thursday, May 10, 2018

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent ~ Book Review

Agnes grew up in poverty & neglect in Iceland in the early 1800's.  Abandoned at a young age by her unmarried mother and never knowing her father, she moved from farm to farm working to stay alive from the age of 8.  Growing up never learning what love was or even what a hug felt like, when she met single "healing doctor" Natan Kettilsson in her 30's, she agreed to move to his farm and become his housekeeper and given the hope that she might become his wife.  As Agnes tries to make a life for herself and finds herself falling in love with Natan events conspire and she finds herself, along with the other housekeeper and a 17 year old male on trial and convicted of the brutal murder and attempted cover-up of Natan and another man.  Put in jail, she endures great hardship and abuse until the authorities decide to put her with a lesser official's family in Northern Iceland until the king of Denmark's approval of her execution.  At first the family is horrified that this is required of them and that they have no choice in the matter.  Their reactions of distrust and anger dictate their ignoring of her and treating her as a servant so that she earns her keep but as time passes they come to see another side of the "murderess" and "convict".

I finished this book more than a week ago but have been dwelling on it since.  This is a fictionalized account inspired by the of the real life Agnes Magnusdottir who was the last woman to be publicly executed in Iceland.  The author has taken great care in her research, both of Agnes and the other main characters in the story and the events surrounding them  and also the way of life and what was happening in the country of Iceland at the time.  She calls her story a "speculative biography" because of course she had to fill in the blanks of conversations and the relationships within her story but was faithful to stick to her research surrounding the events that transpired.  Tradition sees Agnes as a witch of sorts, cold and brutal and uncaring but there is really no historical record of who she really was as Agnes was not really given a chance to tell her side of the story in court.  The author gives a voice to perhaps a different story of Agnes' life that led up to her execution. 

The telling of the Agnes' story goes back and for from 1st person as seen through the eyes of Agnes and what she is feeling and going through as she awaits her execution, and then 3rd person telling the story of the family and of the priest Agnes requested be her spiritual advisor.  The story was an interesting look into the power hungry officials, how the poor and classless servants were treated and given no voice,  how the church officials may have played their role.  It is also an interesting character study of both the family Agnes stayed with and Agnes herself exploring assumptions and preconceived ideas dictating reactions.    The story is definitely atomospheric as the landscape of Iceland, which the author loves, also almost became a character of it's own mirroring the bleakness, hopelessness and poverty  reflected in the story.  Even though one knows right from the beginning what is going to happen because it is history, the author did an amazing job in presenting a character that the reader wants to hope for as her story, as imagined by Hannah Kent,  is unfolded.  I will put a caution in to my reader's sensitive to it, that there is a couple instances of sexual content.

I rated this a 9.5/10


Faith said...

I've actually been looking for this book!!!!! ( i think) I read one set in Ireland with some similar themes and so now I need to go look it up because I'm wondering if it's the same author!! This sounds good and sounds SO much like the one I've been looking for.

Faith said...

omgosh it IS!!!!!!! I just went to my blog and the book i'm talking about by Hannah Kent is The Good PEople. THis one Burial Rites was mentioned on her website or somewhere which is how i remembered the Agnes character!!!! I LOVED the Good People although there was a slight weirdness to it spiritually speaking.

Elizabeth said...

This was an EXCELLENT book.

Great post..thanks.