Burial Rites

by Hannah Kent

Reviewed by Annis

A stunning evocation of time and place, Burial Rites is based on the true story of the last person ever to be executed in Iceland, “a landless workmaid raised on a porridge of moss and poverty”.

Iceland in 1828 remains untouched by the Industrial Revolution. Its simple rural lifestyle has changed little since fiercely independent Vikings settled here in the ninth century. Widely scattered settlements of subsistence farmers on family smallholdings still eke out a living from this starkly beautiful land, steeped in bloodthirsty legend. Although stern Lutheranism now rules, superstitions linger and the Icelandic Sagas hold as firm a place in the national consciousness as the Bible.

In a small, parochial society, the shocking murders of Pétur Jónsson and Natan Ketilsson at Illugastadir in northern Iceland cause a sensation. Among those convicted of the crime is Natan’s housekeeper/lover, Agnes Magnúsdóttir. To the horror of his family, District Officer Jón Jónsson is instructed to hold Agnes at his farm until her execution can be arranged.

Months go by and initial fear and revulsion fade to wary acceptance as Agnes shares the communal burden of hard, physical labour necessary for life in a harsh climate. Beneath the everyday surface, though, disturbing ripples eddy and swirl around her, altering the nuances of relationships and stirring up complex emotions of sympathy and hostility, exacerbated by the long, enforced intimacy of winter.

Moving to the inexorable rhythm of the tides and the seasons, the cycle of life and death, Burial Rites’ saga-spare prose belies the subtly layered depth of its characterization. Can Agnes be seen as a reliable narrator of her own tragedy? Is she guilty or innocent? Mistress of manipulation or victim? Sometimes the heart keeps its secrets: it seems fitting that this knowing but unknowable woman should remain a haunting mystery right to the end, even as her forlorn cry pierces us through with pity: “I am knifed to the hilt with fate”. (2013; 336 pages, including Author's Note, Notes on Icelandic Names, and map.)

More about Burial Rites at Powell's Books, Amazon.com or The Book Depository

Other novels set in Iceland:

Iceland's Bell by Halldór Laxness (1943-1946 in the original Icelandic three-part series; first English edition, 2003), about an accused petty thief in seventeenth-century Iceland, then ruled by Denmark, who makes an off-color joke about the Danish king and becomes a fugitive. More info

Two Ravens by Cecelia Holland (1977), about a young man in twelfth-century Iceland who leaves home to get away from his violent father but feels the need to return. More info

Ice Land by Betsy Tobin (2009), literary historical fantasy about Freya, the Norse goddess of love, and a human woman who falls in love with a man from an enemy clan in Iceland at the turn of the first millennium. More info

Nonfiction about Iceland:

Ring of Seasons: Iceland - Its Culture and History by Terry G. Lacy (2002). More info

Iceland: Land of the Sagas by Jon Krakauer and David Roberts (1998), photographic essays. More info

Letters from High Latitudes by Frederick Hamilton-Temple-Blackwood, Lord Dufferin (1856), a humorous account of the Victorian author's travels in the North Atlantic, including a visit to Iceland. More info at Powell's Books or find it free online at Project Gutenberg.

Tough justice, 1830-style, an article by Quentin Blake about the trial and execution of Agnes Magnúsdóttir

Back to Novels of Nineteenth-Century Europe*

Back to Directory of Book Reviews

* since Iceland was settled by Scandinavians, I've put the listing on a "Europe" page, there being no page category for betwixt-and-between island nations like Iceland, after the medieval period. For more novels with Icelandic settings, see the Medieval Scandinavia and the Vikings page.

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