THE PLOT: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent is about a woman sentenced to death in 1800’s Iceland. Agnes Magnusdottir has grown up as a maidservant in numerous farms in a northern, rural valley. A bastard child, she is abandoned by her mother aged six and has a hard life until she is hired by a rich doctor, Natan Ketillson. But when Natan is murdered, Agnes is charged with the crime and sentenced to death. The novel recounts Agnes’s last few months, imprisoned at a family farm and awaiting execution. As she tells her own story to a priest, we discover the truth of her past.
RATING: Five stars – there’s nothing wrong with this book so it has to get a top rating. It’s exactly the dose of historical fiction I needed as winter approaches. The beautiful setting in Northern Iceland is breathtaking; I can picture the landscape so clearly that I feel as if I’ve visited the region. I’m also glad I learned about a different culture as my knowledge of Iceland’s history is sorely lacking. This book has all the elements of a perfect historical crime novel.
GOOD BITS: The narration flows between Agnes’s POV in the first person to an omniscient narrator who can give us the thoughts of the subsidiary characters. This worked particularly well as we got to see Agnes perceived by the characters around her vs. how she thinks about herself. There are two sisters, Lauga and Steina, and their mother, Margret, who live on the farm where Agnes is imprisoned awaiting execution. Their POV’s make the novel something truly special and add to the beautiful yet rugged depiction of 1800’s farm life in the rural valley.
NOT SO GOOD BITS: This is niche, but I wanted to learn more about Agnes’s parents. I kept waiting for a revelation about them, which never came. I also feel like the priest didn’t have a role – he had a minor transformation and allowed Agnes to speak, but wasn’t who she ultimately revealed her story to.
OVERALL: I’d highly recommend this if you loved The Mercies by Kiran Millwood-Hargrave or The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton. It’s dark, brooding historical fiction that gets you trapped in the mind of the protagonist. Read this underneath a blanket in winter, ideally in front of a fire, with a warm cup of tea or hot chocolate.