Burial Rites, by Hannah Kent

I received a free copy of this ebook to review from NetGalley, on behalf of the publisher. It will be released 10 September 2013.

16122081It’s hard to believe that until the late 1940s, Iceland was one of the poorest nations in Europe. Until the country received Marshall Plan money, most people were subsistence farmers. With a three month growing season, life is incredibly hard without modernization. In Burial Rites, Hannah Kent takes us into that pre-modern Iceland, to 1829. Burial Rites is based on an actual murder trial and follows Agnes Magnúsdóttir during the last few months before her execution. Agnes was born to an unwed mother who abandoned her before she was ten. She had to make her way in the world as best she could, traveling from farm to farm trying to find a place to live permanently. But in a country where everyone is living in a narrow margin between feast and famine, there’s not much left over for the poor and unconnected.

Burial Rites opens with excepts from documents Kent found while researching Agnes’ case. In the author notes at the end of the book, Kent says that, aside from being translated, the documents are unaltered. She uses them to help move the story along, as a counterpoint to Agnes’ tale and life as a prisoner in Kórnsa. The language of the historic documents is very polite, so polite that it’s hard to believe that they’re talking about executing two people for murder. The documents not only lay out the monetary value of Agnes’ worldly goods, but also the place, manner, and audience of her excecution–down to what her coffin should be made of. According to the history, Agnes Magnúsdóttir was the last person to be executed in Iceland.

Agnes gets a chance to tell her story through the medium of an assistant reverend and the mistress of the house that’s holding her prisoner until her execution. She talks, reluctantly, about her hard, loveless childhood. Then she talks, even more reluctantly, about what happened on the night she is accused of helping to murder Natan Ketilsson and Pétur Jónsson. I’ll leave it a mystery whether she actually did do it or not, because that would spoil the book.

Between the historical touches and Agnes’ sincere voice, Burial Rites becomes an amazing glimpse into Icelandic life. Anges’ life is utterly heartbreaking, because you have to know how it ends. There’s no chance for a last minute reprieve because Kent follows what the historical record gives her. She only allows herself license to let Agnes speak for herself. In that way, I think, Kent gives Agnes some justice. This book is incredible.

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