My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I bought this book not knowing too much about it other than it had been incredibly popular and was shortlisted for a bunch of prizes/awards [namely, the Guardian First Book Award (yes, it’s Kent’s FIRST published book) and Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction]. I was surprised when I started reading it to find it was based (loosely) on the true story of the last woman to be executed in Iceland. I have to admit I was a little wary as I wasn’t sure I would enjoy the plot but I am pleased to say I loved it!
As touched on, Burial Rites follows the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, a woman charged with murdering two men. Early on in the book, Agnes is moved to the farm of a somewhat local official and his family while she effectively waits to find out her sentence date. Initially, the family is, on the whole, incredibly put out and reluctant to even interact with Agnes. Over time, however, the family learns more of Agnes and her story through the help of an assistant reverend who is expected to help Agnes come to terms with, and prepare for, her upcoming death sentence.
The book switches between different perspectives and times seamlessly, including a first-person perspective of the past and the present, along with a third-person account of the present. Strong themes throughout the novel include morality, fate, religion, loneliness, and (naturally) life and death.
I noticed as I was reading how quickly and easily I stopped viewing Agnes as a “true” criminal and started pitying her, which surprised me (something I believe Kent was quite keen to get across). I think this is mostly down to the writing – Kent writes in a clear and compelling manner – and you can tell early on that there is more to the story than first thought. It is important to note, however, that the majority of the plot is based on local tales and legends so isn’t necessarily what carried out. For example, there are official documents scattered throughout the book – some are directly translated from actual copies, whereas others are fictionalised.
I was such a fan of the way Kent wrote that I decided to include a few choice sentences that caught my eye:
“I so often feel that I am barely here, that to feel weight is to be reminded of my own existence.”, Agnes reflecting on her inevitable end and being put to work on the farm.
“At Hvammur, during the trial, they plucked at my words like birds. Dreadful birds, dressed in red with breasts of silver buttons, and cocked heads and sharp mouths, looking for guilt like berries on a bush.”, Agnes on her experience of the trials.
This was one of the quickest books I’ve read (I found it very difficult to put down and ended up reading it across one and a half days) – another testament to Kent’s easy to follow but not boring style of writing, in addition to the gripping storyline.
Read it if you want an enthralling and quick read. Read it even if you don’t usually enjoy books based in historical events – the personal perspective will draw you in.
P.S. Kent is an Australian author so if you are taking part in A Year of Australian Writing, you could add this one to your “to read” list if you haven’t already! If you want to know more about AYOAW, click here!