Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Hannah Kent’s novel is stunning, almost unfairly so given it’s her debut novel. ‘Burial Rites’ is the sophisticated, yet simple telling of Agnes Magnúsdóttir’s story. She was the last woman executed in Iceland. Unprepared for dealing with a murderess, the courts sent her to the remote family farm of Jón Jónsson, his wife Margret, and his two daughters Steina and Lauga. Her arrival upsets the household, but the hard work and isolation of farm life eventually breaks down the rigid boundaries between Agnes and the family. They learn there is another side to the sensational tale of Agnes, Fridrik (also executed), and Sigrídur (survived), but ultimately, given this is heavily researched historical fiction, it is not enough to change the outcome.

burial rites

This brilliant novel had me at hello, to borrow from Cameron Crowe. It’s opens with this haunting quote:

I was worst to the one I loved best.

It’s such a simple, beautiful, accurate notion. Loving someone is always a challenge, in the best possible way. But sometimes, it can be in the worst possible way as well. Given the resolution of this novel, I’ll let you draw your own conclusion as to Agnes’ experience. Although I fell in love with the opening quote, I was completely smitten when I read the following line:

I so often feel that I am barely here, that to feel weight is to be reminded of my own existence.

Her depiction of the land and the characters, particularly Agnes and Margret, is brilliant and engaging. Both the landscape and the women initially seem harsh and unyielding, but time and careful study reveal a depth and breadth that is beautiful – as neither is entirely what it seems. Between the main characters, Agnes’ story is the most powerful. There is something incredibly intimate, even when fictional, to having unfiltered access to the thoughts, feelings, and memories of someone who is condemned to die.

I knew only the valley of Vatnsdalur; knew where it was scabbed with rock, knew the white-headed mountains and the lake alive with swans, and the wrinkled skins of turf by the river. And the ravens, the constant, circling ravens. But Illugastadir was different. I had no friends. I didn’t understand the landscape. Only the outlying tongues of rock scarred the perfect kiss of sea and sky – there was no one and nothing else. There was nowhere else to go.

I could and would say more, but I will leave you with this: just read it. It’s impressive, not just because it is a debut novel that seasoned authors wish they could produce, but because it manages to balance darkness and light as carefully as it balances life and death. ‘Burial Rites’* a beautifully crafted piece of literature that will undoubtedly be one of the best novels I read this year. 5/5.

There are lots of food references, I found the most interesting to be skyr. Kate did as well, if you’re interested in it (or in her opinion of the book), go here. Instead, I will tell you that nealry one year ago I was here:

ReykjavikI did try one of the national foods, which is fermented shark. It is not an experience I care to repeat.

*I received a copy of this novel in exchange for my honest opinion.

33 thoughts on “Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

    1. Thank you! It’s definitely one of the best I’ve read this year. It so unfair that she’s so cute and young. If you have to be insanely talented, at least be dull and boring so that I can feel semi-accomplished. 😉


    1. I’ve seen one that said it was solidly good, but flawed. That’s the most criticism I’ve seen it take though, it’s really quite wonderful. I went in prepared to be harsh, but I was pleasantly surprised.


      1. Exactly that. The more everyone loves something, the more likely I am to find fault with it. I like to go against the grain, maybe? Or I just don’t trust the tastes of the masses. Probably the latter…


  1. All of the reviewers are saying all of the pretty things about Burial Rites! I have my copy waiting for me, but I’m putting if off because I’m scared I won’t love it like everyone else. I think Hannah Kent’s writing style is my kind of jam though, so I really shouldn’t worry too much. Great review!


    1. I was surprised. My contrary nature usually dictates that I dislike anything that everyone says is absolutely wonderful, but not in this case. I loved it, even though it’s a bit sad. She has a grasp of language and style that most of us only dream about!


    1. You are absolutely correct. This is very much a book to be savored. Normally I read a book in 1-3 days and it took me two weeks to get through this one because I wanted to enjoy it (and didn’t want it to end).


    1. Yes, you will – because I said so. It really is quite an amazing, beautifully written story. I’m not a huge historical fiction fan, but this one works on so many levels. It really brings Iceland to life (I feel about ten shades of awkward for using that phrase, but it’s true).


  2. I visited Iceland many years ago and I still remember the beauty and strangeness of the lava landscapes vividly.
    And this book… Even though I hardly ever read historical fiction, it sounds like something I must read. It reminds me a bit of Atwood’s Alias Grace which I really like.


    1. I’m not a huge historical fiction fan, but I really enjoyed this one. For some reason, it doesn’t really “read” like historical fiction, which I found appealing. I only spent a day in Iceland, but I would like to go back some day and spend more time. It’s beautiful in a strange way, though the food leaves a lot to be desired.


      1. I had the flu the entire time I was there, so I didn’t really taste any of the traditional food or much food at all really… But yeah, it’s not for the food you go there!


  3. Sounds interesting! I like that you kind of already know how it’s going to end before you even begin.

    And ewww, fermented shark? I kind of want to try shark one day (I was just discussing this with the bf yesterday, actually) but maybe not fermented.


    1. Even though you know the ending, it still made me sad (which is unusual for me). You prepare the entire novel, but it’s still made me the tiniest bit teary-eyed (which for me is seriously sad). I’m not a crier.

      No, definitely not fermented. To be honest, I cannot think of a single fermented food that I enjoy. There may be one, but it’s not coming to me. I’m not a huge fish person, but if I am going to eat it I enjoy the bigger ones (sword, tuna steak, etc.). I’ve not tried standard shark, but I’d be willing to.


    1. I felt like I should. It was awful, I didn’t gag because it would have been impolite, but it was a near think. While I was in Sweden, they served pickled mustard herring for breakfast – also disgusting. It’s unlikely that I would be able to choke that down in the afternoon, but I could not handle it at breakfast. And it was considered extremely unusual to not drink coffee.


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