Book Review: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

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Burial Rites by Hannah Kent / ★★★★★

Summary: Charged with the brutal murder of two men, Agnes is sent to await her execution at an isolated farm in Northern Iceland, home to a family she does not know and with only a young reverend sent to listen to her.

They will not be able to see my words for themselves. They will see the whore, the madwoman, the murderess, the female dripping blood in to the grass and laughing with her mouth choked with dirt. They will say “Agnes” and see the spider, the witch caught in the webbing of her own fateful weaving. They might see the lamb circled by ravens, bleating for a lost mother. But they will not see me. I will not be there.

Genre: Historical Fiction

Plot

Oh my gosh, I loved this book. The only reason it took me a bit longer to read it than usual is because I’ve been feeling a bit book slumpy lately, but even that didn’t take away my enjoyment or appreciation of this book.

Burial Rites is powerfully atmospheric, haunting, and crushingly moving. I loved every single thing about it. Based off the true story of Agnus Magnusdottir and the murder she was charged for in early 1800s Iceland, this book is a fantastically dark piece of historical fiction. Hannah Kent is extremely thorough in her research, her writing, and her portrayal of Agnes’s story. The progression of this book felt like a slow, steady descent, growing darker and colder with the seasons, and it sucked me in deeper the more I read.

I loved the opposing forces in this book. I loved the religious themes against a more superstitious kind of faith. The religious law vs. spiritual truth vs. human heart and what that meant for an individual’s – and country’s – capability to give mercy, and the type of person who was likely to receive it, was so well done. These, and so many other factors and details, surrounding a woman and a gruesome murder made a fascinating and devastating story, and when I finished the book my heart felt very heavy. I loved it.

Characters

I loved these characters. All of them had Grade A development over the course of this book. They were so well done, and I didn’t expect them to latch too firmly to my heart, but they did. I loved the way each character had something distinctly different in their personality and in their values that contributed to the themes of truth, law, and justice. I loved the way Agnes slowly reveals her story, and to whom she choses to reveal it to, and the increasing desperation I got from her as the book drew to a close, the plight of a girl who was too able and shrewd. Agnes was a fantastic character.

Margret, the wife of the household Agnes is forced upon, was my favorite character. Her sturdiness, strength, her brusk nature and her strong heart despite her ailing lungs grew on me from the minute Agnes walked into her house, and I loved their relationship. My other favorite was Tóti, the reverend Agnes requests for “spiritual guidance” to lead her into her last days. Even with his quiet, gentle nature I really wasn’t quite sure what to make of him at first – did I like him, or not? – and it really wasn’t until the end I was really overblown by his part in the book. His final line just GOT ME.

Writing

The writing of this book was MAGNIFICENT. The eerie atmosphere, the setting of dark, wet, freezing 19th century Iceland was so well done I felt as if I could be there, like if I got on a plane and flew there right now I’d know exactly what to expect. Kent’s prose was beautiful and bone-chilling. The descriptions and progression of the scenes was cinematic. I’d love to watch this as a movie. Not to mention, this book pulls off the task of switching flawlessly back and forth between first person and third. Usually I might find this offsetting, but it was perfect for this book, and it made so much sense.

Most of all, I loved the way Kent was able to convey emotion through her writing. Her descriptions of terror, of anger, of desperation were so bone-deep it was like I could feel them in my own skin. Everything in this book was coated in an overall sensation of impending, quiet doom. And yet? I’ve always wanted to go to Iceland, but now I want to so much more.

Was I satisfied?

YES. When I finished it, I fell back in my seat and thought, “WOW.” If you want some dark, atmospheric historical fiction, go read this.

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18 thoughts on “Book Review: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

  1. AHHHH YAYYY

    I’m so glad you loved this so much. Everything about this book just floored me. Kent’s prose was gorgeous and atmospheric and this is the only book I can think of where I actually liked first and third person being used together. For me it really heightened the isolation that Agnes felt from everyone around her, and also it made it feel like Agnes’s story was taking place in the present because it was drawing to an end, while this was only a chapter in the lives of everyone around her.

    I loved these characters so much. I read this over a year ago and I still think about Agnes sometimes. I love how Hannah Kent gave a whole life and personality to this woman we really don’t know a lot about. It definitely makes me wonder what the real Agnes was like. Also this book weirdly made me want to go to Iceland too! Which is so weird as the atmosphere Kent created was so bleak and depressing.

    Actually I’m going to message you on Goodreads with the rest of my thoughts so as to spare your followers from spoilers.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ahhh YES the first person really set Agnes apart, and it was so much more detailed than the third person parts. I loved getting a closer view of her. And I like that- how it was only a chapter in everyone else’s lives. 😥

      I’m so fascinated by the real Agnes, and it just makes me appreciate exactly how much research it seems went into this book. And it makes me want to go to Iceland and see the actual places this took place. I’ve always wanted to go to Iceland, but I have a certain love of dreary weather and this just heightened it so much. Though I would NOT want to go there in the time period this book was set in hahah.

      Liked by 1 person

      • YES same here, I’d love to see the places where these events took place! I’ve always wanted to go to Iceland too for some reason, it seems gorgeous. I actually don’t like dreary weather usually but it seems like such a cool atmosphere, so as long as it’s not freezing cold I can handle it.

        I also want to learn more about real Agnes! I wonder if there’s any nonfiction about her specifically, or if Hannah Kent researched the case but entirely invented Agnes’ personality. I’d love to find out more about it.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Yess, it’s always sounded so beautiful, and I’d love to go to Northern Iceland around the winter or summer solstice, when there’s the northern lights or 24 hour sunlight. But that cold sounded brutal, I’d be a little unsure about going into that lol.

        I don’t know if there’s any nonfiction about her, it sounded like Hannah Kent spent a long time doing a lot of her own research and talking to Icelanders and whatnot. I’d googled Agnes when I finished the book and most of it centered around Burial Rites. But I think in her acknowledgements at the end of the book she said she’d taken liberties with Agnes’ personality, but tried to stick to the nature of the facts she’d found.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Stunning review! I love how you weave your words, it is so beautiful and flows melodiously. I don’t read a lot of historical fiction, but the synopsis sounds interesting, I’ll add this to my TBR!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much!! :’) I spend probably too much time rereading to make sure my words make sense, lol. And I think the way I write a review reflects the book itself sometimes- if a book is really well written and the style is still in my brain, I think it shows in the way I write and want to portray my experience of the book. So it’s definitely a testament to the book as well! And Burial Rites is a really beautifully written book, I wanted to do it justice. If you find yourself in the mood for something eerie, or a dark mystery, I’d definitely give it a try!!

      Liked by 1 person

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