Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Book Review: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Release date: April 23th 2013
Info about the author: Goodreads - Twitter - Website
Publisher: Picador Australia (kindle edition)
Age group: Adult
Pages: 352 (kindle edition)
Buy the book: Amazon - Book Depository 

Description (from Goodreads):

A brilliant literary debut, inspired by a true story: the final days of a young woman accused of murder in Iceland in 1829.

Set against Iceland's stark landscape, Hannah Kent brings to vivid life the story of Agnes, who, charged with the brutal murder of her former master, is sent to an isolated farm to await execution.

Horrified at the prospect of housing a convicted murderer, the family at first avoids Agnes. Only Tóti, a priest Agnes has mysteriously chosen to be her spiritual guardian, seeks to understand her. But as Agnes's death looms, the farmer's wife and their daughters learn there is another side to the sensational story they've heard.

Riveting and rich with lyricism, BURIAL RITES evokes a dramatic existence in a distant time and place, and asks the question, how can one woman hope to endure when her life depends upon the stories told by others?


Eerie, poetic, touching, intriguing, mysterious, dark, real, honest... those are just some of the words that popped into my mind while reading Hannah Kent's debut novel Burial Rites, a fictional story based on historical research about the final days of Agnes Mangusdottir, the last person executed in Iceland in 1830. 

Based on real people, places and events, Kent's novel takes the reader along to a journey to witness the last days and thoughts of a thirty something Agnes who is accused, along two other people, of a brutal murder to two men as well as committing arson to cover the traces left by the horrific act. She's placed under the supervision of a family living on a farm. Naturally, knowing only the public side of the events, the family avoids her as much as they can - after all, she is a brutal murderess with no conscience. But as time goes by, the family gets to see another side of Agnes - a side that "could have been" if it wasn't for the wrong people and wrong decisions. With the help of the mother of the family, as well as the young reverend appointed to help her on her journey to execution, Agnes opens up about her past, her present and the night that changed everything for her while keeping to herself what everyone wants to know - did she really do what she's accused of?

Around last Christmas I kept eyeing Burial Rites every single time I visited Waterstone's (which is usually several times a week). Since I rarely buy books from there (the prices are so high compared to discount bookstores), I never ended up purchasing it. Then these stickers started to appear to the cover of the book indicating all the awards and the praise that title has gained. Finally, almost nine months after Christmas I got an ebook copy of the novel and gave it ago. Now I hope that I could take a trip to the past just so I could have bought this book already during the Christmas time. 

Burial Rites, a historical novel in its essence, occasionally reads like mystery or a crime story, occasionally like a book of poetry and very often like a combination of all. The historical detail from the names, locations and letters shows that Kent really knows what she is writing about - the research put into this piece of work must be humongous. Though the case is probably much written about in Iceland, I had not heard about it before and without reading the synopsis of the book one could think that all of these people and events are products of Kent's imagination. The fact is though that when you know that the people you are reading about actually lived, the novel gains a new level of meaning, a new level of accomplishment. Kent gives Agnes a voice that is honest, touching and oftentimes extremely melancholic. The people that surround Agnes also get a voice and one of the most interesting aspects of the novel is to follow how their opinions about Agnes change as the story develops. Kent takes her time establishing the background to the murders - we get to know about Agnes's childhood, her jobs on several farms, her relationships with the people who were killed. In addition to that, Kent allows the reader to get to know Agnes after the murders - a woman who finds her place from the home of the people who did not want her there in the first place. 

Like its subject matter, Burial Rites is dark and eerie and often very sorrowful and hopeless. There are glimpses of hope here and there, moments in which Agnes does not feel like everything is over, but then the black ravens come and eventually devour all the hope. I feel like I should warn that this might not be for the faint of heart. Though there's only a couple of scenes of direct violence, the general atmosphere of the novel could very well seem suffocating for some readers. This is one of those books that will definitely haunt me for the days to come - the lyrical, eerie prose of Kent has definitely left a mark on me with its descriptiveness and detail.

What Kent excels in is making Agnes, an accused murderer, a character you can feel for and a character you can connect with. Agnes is not a monster, but she's not an angel either. She's so real, so human and so perfectly flawed. When you feel like you finally know her, she reveals more of herself, adding more layers to her history and personality. The supporting characters from the young reverend to the family Agnes stays with all have their own unique perspective to what they are going through which feeds incredibly well to the building of Agnes's story and character. It has been a while since I read a book with this good character development and pacing - you just want to keep reading and reading to see what happens.

In conclusion, Burial Rites is mindbogglingly brilliant debut novel by Hannah Kent. This definitely makes me curious to see what she comes up with next.

The film rights of the novel have been optioned by Allison Sheamur, the producer of The Hunger Games and it has been announced that director Gary Ross and Oscar Winner Jennifer Lawrence has been attached to the film. Gary Ross directed The Hunger Games, in which he, in my opinion, excels with creating the eerie atmosphere of the setting, which is something I hope to see in the film adaptation of Burial Rites as well.  Jennifer Lawrence might not perfectly fit the physical description given of Agnes in the book, but while reading the novel I really was able to imagine Lawrence playing Agnes on the big screen. The project still seems to be in pre-production, meaning that it might take a while for it to come to the cinemas near you, but I do really feel like Kent's story and writing are perfect for cinematic interpretation.

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