Burial Rites by Hannah Kent is a historical novel set in the 1820s and based on the true story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, a work maid accused of murder who was the last woman to be executed in Iceland.
Shortlisted for the Impac Literary Award in 2015, Burial Rites is an engrossing and atmospheric read. Notwithstanding its grim subject, Hannah Kent creates a world in Burial Rites that many readers will be reluctant to leave when they reach the final page.
In Burial Rites, the main character Agnes is sent to wait for her execution on the remote farm of Jon Jonsson and his wife Margret. There, Agnes begins to tell her story to her spiritual counsellor, Assistant Reverend Thoravardur Jonsson and slowly details emerge of her relationship with Natan Ketilson, one of the two men she is accused of murdering.
That the reader knows the outcome from the start in no way takes away from the tension and suspense of a well-crafted story that reminded me a little of Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and of Joseph O’Connor’s Redemption Falls although I found it more readable than both.
Burial Rites is a beautifully written, bleak novel that is strong on imagery. Kent creates a world rich in atmosphere drawing her reader in on the first page and sustaining the quality of writing right through to the end. Wind, snow and constantly circling ravens define the mood of a world where hardship and superstition are daily aspects of life.
Burial Rites is published by Picador