Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

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Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

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Category: Crime (Historical)
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson
Summary: A real murder case in 19th century Icelandic history fictionalised into a gently-paced enigmatic mystery with an explosive climax. Careful – it'll drag you in before you realise.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 256 Date: August 2013
Publisher: Picador
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1447233169

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Shortlisted for Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction 2014

Fridrik, Agnes and Sigridur are accused of murdering two men on an Icelandic night in 1829. Now Agnes awaits execution, imprisoned in the farm of a lowly local family who, rumour has it, wouldn't be too great a loss if the prisoner becomes dangerous. Margrit Jonsdottir (the farmer's wife) doesn't feel threatened and sets the shocked, malnourished Agnes to work. Gradually Agnes reveals the events of that night to Margrit and Toti, a young priest. Predictably her version seems to be a little different from what everyone else concluded. Or perhaps not so predictably.

For her debut novel Australian writer Hannah Kent treats us to an affecting story based on true events. Hannah was first haunted by this murder account when she went to Iceland as a teenager on an exchange programme. Now she presents it to us, using original source letters, poems and court reports cleverly spliced between her chapters.

Hannah also has an interesting way of introducing us to Agnes. The murderess is the only character who talks to us directly in the first person, rather than through the third person narration. In fact she doesn’t just talk to us; she almost pleads as her background is revealed leaving the events of the fatal night till the dramatic end; an end made even more dramatic as the rest of the novel is low-key. Don't make assumptions though: 'low-key' in this case isn't a euphemism for boring.

The story's languorous amble may not be to everyone's taste but I loved it. The reason? We're not only imbued with a sense of curiosity about Agnes' part in the murder (pun almost unintentional!) and her fate, we're also subsumed by a world where it's dark half the year, where healing is connected with witchcraft and where the calendar passes with the aid of some fascinating customs. Agnes herself is also fascinating, her childhood making a broken home look like luxury living by comparison.

Hannah also knows how to develop literary relationships. Reactions to Agnes evolve in the farming household as they get to know her better and as for her relationship with Toti, the young inexperienced priest… I've never experienced an illness being used as a suspense device until now; it worked so well, I was shouting at the book!

Please don't be put off by the complexity of the Icelandic names nor, indeed, the naming system. (There's a reason why I didn't refer to the farmers as 'the Jonsdottir family'.) The author provides an explanatory aid at the beginning but if you're forgetful like me, you'll just resolve to pronounce the names in your head. Whichever method you adopt, they soon become familiar and don't impede the flow.

Going back to the end, I don't know how much of Agnes' fate will emerge via publicity blurb and interviews but if you don't know the historic outcome, please don't seek the answer. Although you don't need that level of unknowing to enjoy the book, being ignorant of where it's going adds to the experience. It's only this that prevents me from discussing an ending I'm desperate to talk about and, when you get there, you'll see why. You'll also see why I have a new, burgeoning interest in Icelandic history and whatever Hannah Kent chooses to write about next.

If you want to read more fiction based in Iceland, we also recommend Heaven and Hell by Jon Kalman Stefansson.

Buy Burial Rites by Hannah Kent at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Burial Rites by Hannah Kent at Amazon.co.uk


Buy Burial Rites by Hannah Kent at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Burial Rites by Hannah Kent at Amazon.com.

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