Review: Burial Rites, Hannah Kent


Northern Iceland, 1829.

A woman condemned to death for murdering her lover.

A family forced to take her in.

A priest tasked with absolving her.

But all is not as it seems, and time is running out:
winter is coming, and with it the execution date.

Only she can know the truth. This is Agnes’s story.

Ever wanted to go to Iceland? This book might in equal parts entice and deter you from doing just that. Go for the desolate and eerie icy landscapes, stay for the brutal murders and executions of innocent people…

There was something about Kent’s novel – maybe the beautiful cover – which has been inciting me to read it for years, and I’m so glad that I finally got around to it. It’s beautifully set and poetically written, with all the components of a perfect winter-warming novel, and enough drama, suspense and intrigue to keep you turning the pages.

“You will be lost. There is no final home, there is no burial, there is only a scattering, a thwarted journey that takes you everywhere without offering you a way home, for there is no home, there is only this cold island and your dark self spread thinly upon it until you take up the wind’s howl and mimic its loneliness you are not going home you are gone silence will claim you, suck your life down into its black waters and churn out stars that might remember you, but if they do they will not say, they will not say, and if no one will say your name you are forgotten I am forgotten.”

Just look at the beautiful, law-breaking, poetic, raw passage above. Kent is so badass she doesn’t even need sentence structure – commas? No thanks. Capitalisation and punctuation? Pah. I love the way she entwines the place of Iceland with its characters. They are as much a part of the desolate and haunting landscape as the, well, the ice and the land, that Kent has so convincingly brought to life. Quite a feat for an Australian. The whole thing is just crying out for a dark and brooding film adaptation, complete with all the sweeping and bleak panoramic shots of the Icelandic landscape Kent depicts so well. So much so that I hear that a film version is inevitably currently churning in that big Hollywood mechanism.

Agnes’ plight is doomed from the start, and I think we all know that. What’s exciting is the uncovering of the truth, the telling of her story from different characters, and the way she is portrayed with both pathos and boldness. I love the setting, I love the links to the Icelandic Sagas which I studied and revelled in at university, and I love the bleakness of it all.

In a country as literate and literary as Iceland, it’s just a shame that it’s taken a foreigner to get me to want to read more. But fear not: Icelandic literature is going to be right at the top of my reading list, and Iceland itself has flown right to the top of my bucket list. I can’t wait to be inspired by a country with such a rich literary history.1a76d0edcd2489c06c99a18bc4b794a8

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