Burials Rites by Hannah Kent

Burial Rites is an historical fiction based on the 200-year-old story of the last woman executed by decapitation in Iceland. In 1829 Agnes Magnúsdóttir’s is sentenced to death but must wait for her killing at a farm at Kornsá with Margrét, Jón and their children. She had spent her childhood in this parish. Her mother abandoned her, and the death of her foster mother Inga was traumatising. She is thirty-three, smart, poetic and was only involved in the murder to prevent the victim a drawn-out death. The narrative is from different points of view, with archival detail inserted as background. The character development and the rich lyrical description of the seasons are the strengths of this tale. Agnes is deeply superstitious “Cruel Birds, ravens, but wise. And creatures should be loved for their wisdom if they cannot be loved for kindness”. Relationships change and we get to know Agnes as she prepares herself for death by revealing her story to the priest Tóti, “It’s all over, Tóti thought. He nudged his horse onwards and brought it next to Agnes’s. Holding the reins in one hand, he pulled off a glove and reached across to put his hand on her leg. As he did, he smelt the hot stench of urine. Agnes looked at him, her eyes wide. Her mouth was chattering uncontrollably.” The seasons are an analogy, as she moves from the Arctic Summer to the Icelandic Winter. This is a compelling, horrifying and beautiful work.

Burial Rites
Published: 2013

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