Book Book Book Book
Commentary Commentary RSS Reviews Podcasts_Audio Podcasts RSS Blog Links Archives Indexes
Hannah Kent
Burial Rites
Little, Brown / Hachette Book Group
US Hardcover First Edition
ISBN 978-0-316-24391-9
Publication Date: 09-10-2013
326 Pages; $26.00
Date Reviewed: 10-21-2013
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2013

Index:  Mystery  General Fiction

There's a precision in Hannah Kent's 'Burial Rites' that one might be tempted to call icy; the setting is Iceland, the characters isolated and the relationships are chilly at best. But for all the cold of the environments, geographical and human, the precision that Kent brings to her prose and her novel is warm and expansive.

'Burial Rites' is a fictional spin on the true story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last woman executed in Iceland, at the beginning of the 19th century, in 1829. Before she was beheaded for participating, even masterminding the deaths of two men, she was billeted with a family in a remote community. This does not sound like a promising environment for human warmth, and to be sure, Hannah Kent does not romanticize any aspect of the situation. But the clarity she brings to her vision of the characters and the place make sure that the story is intense and engaging. By showing us humans in a simple, unadorned manner, she shows the strength and compassion we might all find, even in the worst of circumstances.

Kent's prose is a great starting point. Chunks of the book are direct translations of historical sources. The story is told in a rather daring manner, alternating between third person narration when we are with members of family and the community, and first person passages told by Agnes herself. The third person prose is nicely turned and phrased with words evocative of the specific time and place. Kent uses enough lightly-Anglicized Icelandic terms to draw readers in, but never does so to draw attention to herself. She crafts her characters in the third-person sections with an admirable economy, letting her readers draw conclusions. And in Agnes' narration, she treads a very fine line between a narrator who is engaging and one who might be spinning the story for her own benefit. There's a lot of nuance in the prose, but it never seems deliberately "delicate."

'Burial Rites' has a large cast, but Kent manages to make them all distinct. Having two prose streams and perspectives helps in this matter, but within the bonds of historical record, she's created some intensely memorable characters. Front and center is Agnes, who is part enigma — to those who see her from outside — and a rather different sort of enigma in the first person portions of the narrative. To those around her, she is generally thought to be a monster, though as the family gets to know her, some change their mind, slightly. But from within, Agnes is complicated, beguiling and shifty. She may be unreliable, or she may be telling the truth, or she may be selling the truth. Kent plays everything out in both halves of the narrative in an understated manner. Even the more minor characters are enjoyably memorable.

Plotting might seem to be the greatest challenge here, but again, Kent is up to the challenge. With prose and characterization, she manages to throw her own fidelity to history in doubt. After all, 'Burial Rites' is a novel and she can play fast and loose with the truth. We like Agnes, a lot, and other characters do as well. We hope to see her live and Kent plays out the tension between history and fiction with a superb eye. She also crafts some intense tension in cutting between the first and third person portions of the narrative. As we learn more about Agnes from within, we might get conflicting data from without. Where the truth lies is a matter of turning pages at a rapidly increasing pace. Kent rewards her readers' efforts with a well-wrought finish, but getting there is just as much fun as arriving.

For all the cold weather and cold feelings one will find in 'Burial Rites,' Hannah Kent's writing is warm and smart. Good, evil and even indifference respond to sympathy and empathic understanding. Hannah Kent's compassion for her characters and her genuine affection for them make it possible for readers to care and feel compassion. Upon waking from the reading dream, the feelings linger.

Review Archive
All Reviews alphabetized by author.

General Fiction
Non-Genre, general fiction and literature.

Supernatural fiction, supernatural horror and non-supernatural horror.

Science Fiction
Science fiction, science fantasy, speculative fiction, alternate history.

Fantasy, surrealism and magic realism.

Crime, thrillers, mystery, suspense.

Non-Fiction, True Crime, Forteana, Reference.


Archives Indexes How to use the Agony Column Contact Us About Us