I spent a few days with Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites. I took my time reading it because, from the very first page, it’s quite an intense book. I’m sure I’m going to remember Burial Rites for a very long time and Agnes as well, the ambiguous woman at the center of the story – just like Hannah Kent couldn’t forget Agnes when she first heard about her.
I went into the book not knowing what would happen in the end. In fact, I had very faint idea about it being based on reality. I’m weird like that, I don’t always commit little details to memory. Sometime when I’d come across Burial Rites I’d found out it was based on a true story. But I’d quickly forgotten that and started the book without thinking of looking up the background story. And I wish you’ll do the same. Don’t read anything about Agnes Magnúsdóttir before reading Burial Rites, it will help and preserve the full capacity of the book to impact you.
Very brief synopsis is that a woman (Agnes) convicted of murder is sent to a family in a small town where she is to stay prisoner while awaiting execution. At the same time a Reverend of her choice is appointed to absolve her. That’s all you need to know before you start. It’s about her story and the details of what happened/happens.
The first thing Kent does is to explain how names are given to sons and daughters in Icelandic tradition, then it also gave us a chart about the accents and pronunciation. So you know from the start that the book has been thoroughly researched. It also comes with a map which helps you locate the relative places.
Another aspect of Burial Rites that I love, and which I felt added a lot of depth to it, is the official correspondence regarding the details of the case. You’ll find letters interspersed throughout the story and through them you’ll know further about the characters and how the people back then thought about certain things. You will also, of course, know more about the way Agnes was condemned and how her case was dealt with. All these documents are based on the ones Kent found in the actual historical records.
My favourite part of the book is Kent’s writing. It’s hard for me to believe (but I know it’s true) that she was an inexperienced writer before she started. The prose is beautiful and packed with sentences and details that literally give you a sense of indulgence and closure when you read them. I hope you’ll understand what I’m trying to say when you read the book.
I recommend the book to everyone, especially those who look for stories that history buries and society blurs.
I give the book 5/5 stars because it’s perfect and a very strong debut.
Here are some of my favourite quotes from the book:
“I can turn to that day as though it were a page in a book. It’s written so deeply upon my mind I can almost taste the ink.”
“They will say ‘Agnes’ and see the spider, the witch caught in the webbing of her own fateful weaving. They might see the lamb circled by ravens, bleating for a lost mother. But they will not see me. I will not be there.”
“They see I’ve got a head on my shoulders, and believe a thinking woman cannot be trusted.”
“Everything I said was taken from me and altered until the story wasn’t my own.”
If these quotes don’t convince you to read the book, then I don’t know what will.