Burial Rites – Hannah Kent

I have been dragging my heels about writing a review of Hannah Kent’s debut novel ‘Burial Rites’ for quite some time. Not because this is a bad book or one of those books that you read and promptly forget, quite the contrary, it is a book that I enjoyed (read loved) so much and found so powerful that anything I write about it will barely do it justice and so I will have to go and sit in a corner and sulk for the rest of the day. As I am quite good at sulking when the need arises, I will give it a whirl – though I am doubly cross with myself for losing the notes and page quotes I had on the book, all thanks to an iPhone resetting. But let’s discuss the book shall we rather than my insecurities or technological faux pas.


Picador, 2013, hardback, fiction, 256 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

It is the late 1820’s in Iceland and the lives of District Officer Jon Jonsson, his wife Margret and daughters Lauga and Steina, are changed on their farm of Kornsá when the news that they will be housing a criminal in the lead up to her execution, for we are in times when prisons do not exist. The criminal in question is Agnes Magnusdottir who, many believe, killed ‘healer’ Natan Ketilsson and his neighbour along with Sigridur and Fredrik who are to be housed elsewhere for fear they will concoct some tale or escape. This is not only a time of no prisons but a time when the law simply states that you are guilty unless proven otherwise and with just three people’s word the likelihood, once the King across the sea grants it, is that you will be killed. It is from the time that Agnes is housed in Kornsa while she waits the final verdict and judgement that makes up the story of ‘Burial Rites’.

As many of you may or may not know the actual case of Agnes Magnusdottir is a true one, indeed she was the last woman to be executed in Iceland, yet despite knowing that from the beginning as the novel winds on the more you hope that the outcome will not be the one it is (this happened to me again very recently with Meike Ziervogel’s ‘Magda’ which I can’t wait to tell you about soon) especially as Kent weaves her fictionalised version of events as to what Agnes’ life was like from childhood leading to her first meeting with Natan and what followed, which of course I will not spoil for you because the story of ‘Burial Rites’ to my mind is the story of the person behind the true story and Kent tells it beautifully.

A good story is lost without great characters and atmosphere and Kent has these both in abundance. We spend the beginning of the novel away from Agnes yet hearing much about her through the mouths and tales of others. So when we meet her we already have a vision in our heads of some calculating witch. It is this same image that Margret and her daughters also have and so the very idea of having this woman sleeping in the same house as them is beyond terrifying and Margret is a hard woman at the best of times. Yet as the novel moves forward and they, and we, meet Agnes they start to question themselves and the assumptions they have made about her, especially as Agnes starts to tell her story to the visiting Reverend ‘Toti’ who has been sent on a mission to save her soul before she dies.

The other aspect of the book I loved was Iceland itself, the atmosphere of the place is brought fully to life by Kent, who chose to go there after never having seen snow in her native Australia and there learnt of Agnes’ tale. Cleverly she never needs to describe the ‘other worldly’ sense of Iceland in great detail, she structures the scenery in short sharp sketches and it constantly broods behind every scene. Having been to Iceland myself (and shamefully having not shared that trip with you on the blog last year, why ever not I do not know) I could probably have pictured some of the setting but I stayed in Reykjavik with two little trips out into the sparse wilderness, nothing quite as sparse as Kornsá though yet I felt by the end of the book I had been there living out a winter with them all. The book also packs an emotional punch. As I mentioned earlier we know the outcome of the events from the start, as the countdown increases and the pages of ‘Burial Rites’ lessen in our hands the sense of dread increases and I have to say I found the end of the book incredibly moving.

The lovely Sandra was indeed right...

The lovely Sandra was indeed right…

There is no question that Hannah Kent has crafted an incredibly beautiful novel with ‘Burial Rites’. It is a book which has a sense of isolation and brooding menace throughout and a book where the prose is as sparse (you feel not a word has been wasted) as the Icelandic landscape it is evoking. It is one of my books of the year without question and one lots of people can expect in their season stockings in a few months time. I strongly suggest you read it.

Who else has read ‘Burial Rites’ and what did you make of it? You can hear Hannah and myself talking about it (without spoilers) here. Which other books have you read set in Iceland, as I am a bit obsessed with the place – I have already cottoned onto Yrsa Sigurdardottir – and would love to read more novels and non-fiction alike set there, especially now the darker nights are here as its very Autumnal now in the Wirral.


Filed under Books of 2013, Hannah Kent, Picador Books, Review

33 responses to “Burial Rites – Hannah Kent

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings

    If you like crime fiction, there’s an excellent series of Icelandic set novels by Arnaldur Indriðason which I’d recommend – very atmospheric! My OH tells me that there are so few people living in Iceland and because they are so inter-related, they had an app whereby they bump phones together to find out if they are related so as to avoid incest……!!

    • Really? I have been to Iceland and I never heard of that, sounds unusual. I have not tried Indridason but I am a big fan of Yrsa Sigurdardottir and her Icelandic crime fiction in particular! I will have to try Arnaldur out at some point!

  2. Icelandic literature.. I devoured every book I could find in my city library. There were not many, unfortunatelly.
    Of course, you have Halldor Laxness – ‘Independent People’ I highly recommend or ‘Iceland’s Bell’.
    Or Sjon’s ‘Blue Fox’.. There’s also Einar Már Guðmundsson’s ‘Angels of the Universe’. Jón Kalman Stefánsson’s ‘Heaven and Hell’. Olaf Olafson’s ‘The Journey Home’..

    • I have Independent People in the TBR indeed. Sjon really, really interests me so I will have to try and read him at some point. In fact I may have to try all the authors that you have mentioned Anna 😉

  3. Quite a bit of The Falcons of Fire and Ice by Karen Maitland is set in Iceland – starts in Portugal and then travels to Iceland and the rest of the novel is set there. I really enjoyed it.

    • Karen Maitland is an author I have been meaning to try for a while (though I feel I am stuck on repeat with that expression at the moment) as you enjoyed her I will have to look her up and give one a whirl.

  4. I have just bought this on the recommendation of a friend (who has just returned from a trip to Iceland!) and am very much looking forward to it. There is something about the landscape that is very appealing.

  5. Sharkell

    This is also one of my favourite books of the year. When reading the book I was a bit puzzled by the fact that all the characters could read – it made me wonder how well researched it was until I read the Afterword which explained that Icelanders had very high literacy rates even in the early 1800s. What an amazing country!

    • It is one of my favourite countries in the world I have to say. I need to go back again and take The Beard with me to experience it all. I also concur that this is definitely one of the books of the year.

  6. Ana

    Such a fascinating book, and what an achievement to have you so devastated at the sadly inevitable ending.

    Just so engrossing to hear Hannah in conversation at Sydney Writers Festival this year.

  7. One of my favourite books of this year. If you’re interested in an entirely different view of Iceland you could try Sarah Moss’s Names for the Sea about her year spent living and working in Iceland. Fascinating, and she eats a lot of skyr!

    • I have that book somewhere in the TBR Susan so I will pop it nearer the top on your recommendation. It is one I meant to read when I went there last year and forgot to pack, helpful.

  8. A strong contender for novel of the year over at my place …..


    it certainly got my vote for the First Book Award at the Edinburgh Book Festival. There’s still time for you to vote for it also …..

  9. Great review Simon, and lovely to see the handwritten note in your book! I loved Burial Rites too: http://theselittlewords.com/2013/10/03/review-burial-rites-by-hannah-kent/

  10. I loved the Icelandic setting as well and I totally agree on Kent’s marvellous ability to create characters that resonate and stay with us.

    If you like crime fiction and are looking for an Icelandic setting, I highly recommend you Analdur Indridalson’s books. They are dark, cold and rough.

    • That is a second in recommending Indridalson, so it does seem I have to check him out. I will have to find the first one at the library (cant read a book out of series order if can help it) and see how I get on.

      • Don’t think they’ve translated the first one in the series… I once checked and it wasn’t, but I don’t remember if I checked the English or the Spanish version translation.

  11. I have had my eye on this for some time, very intrigued to read it and happy to hear that it loved it so. It sounds like a story that just had to be told and good that the author has succeeded in bringing it alive again.

    • I like a good fictional retelling of history Claire, especially if it is something that I don’t know much about – I knew nothing of this tale and so was utterly fascinating, horrified and gripped throughout. Let me know if you give it a whirl.

  12. I second suggestions for Jón Kalman Stefánsson’s trilogy, the first two of which at least are already translated to English, Heaven and Hell and The Sorrow of the Angels. Laxness’s Iceland’s Bell is among my favourites. Arnaldur Indriðason is the biggest crime writer in Iceland so I would recommend giving him a go as well.

    • Oh that is another series to look out for then. I shall follow all these recommendations as they are wonderful, very excited about them I am too. Seems Iceland’s Bell might be a secret favourite with people, more than Independent People, maybe.

      • Oh, I HATED Independent People when I read it but that might have something to do with the fact that I was made to read it in school. The book just makes such a big deal out of how bleak everything was at that point in Icelandic history. It is, though of course, a masterpiece and I am sure I would appreciate it better if I read it now.

      • Oh this is interesting as it is seen as his magus opus isn’t it? If it is too bleak I probably won’t love it, I like a bit of light and shade in fiction.

  13. Pingback: Burial Rites – Hannah Kent | Novel Heights

  14. David

    Agh, can I admit that I wasn’t as bowled over by ‘Burial Rites’ as the rave reviews led me to think I would be? To me it was very much a book of two halves – the first 150 pages didn’t engage me at all and I nearly gave up on the whole thing. The second half (largely taken up by Agnes’s relating of the events at Illugastadir) was much more involving and I thought very well done, though it got a bit soapy before the execution with everyone believing Agnes’s story and deciding she was actually quite decent after all (Lauga having a little cry in the dark was too much).
    Kent does atmosphere really well, though for me she is less sure with dialogue (an awkward mix of plain, slightly formal speech and jarring modern idiom) and character (only Agnes seems fully developed, many of the others are little more than stereotypes). Also I thought the switching between first and third person narration that worked in the first half became a bit redundant in the second half.
    I think the novel shows great promise for the future but I just found it a bit too uneven.

  15. I have literally just finished this book and am still wiping away the tears. It is stunning, with a final chapter as moving as anything I have read. What a debut – she is a writer to watch.

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