Book Review: ‘Burial Rites’ Hannah Kent, Picador Sydney

“But any woman knows that a thread, once woven, is fixed in place; the only way to smooth a mistake is to let it all unravel.”

Unravel is exactly what Hannah Kent allows her protagonist, Agnes Magnusdottir, to do. It is 1829 and Agnes is convicted of a brutal double murder and sentenced to death by beheading. Agnes, living as she does in the isolated farming provinces of northern Iceland, cannot be housed in a prison, so she is billeted to a farming family to spend her remaining days as the politically ambitious District Commissioner fashions the ways and means of her execution.

What else is there for Agnes to do but let it all unravel? Kent deals with this unravelling with deft ease. Agnes slowly reveals the story that the courts did not hear through her relationships with the farming family and her priest until we understand Agnes and the terrible circumstances that led to her conviction. It is in Agnes’ unravelling that we see her unfathomable strength in adversity and understand her character. In allowing herself to be seen, the injustice of her treatment is all rendered the more brutal.

Agnes’ story is a fictionalisation of the true story of the last person to be executed by the state in Iceland but Kent takes her significant knowledge of that slice of history and weaves it into a compelling and insightful story, allowing the reader into the fascinating and superstitious world of nineteenth century Iceland, and ultimately into the heart of a woman variously described as ‘the murderess’, a ‘monster’ and an ‘evil-doer’.

I could not put Burial Rites down. It drew me in until it blocked everything else out. Burial Rites belongs to that rarefied group of books – the best kind of books: the ones that make real life less important than the story unfolding on the page. Its achievement is in no small part due to the dignified yet fraught relationship between Agnes and her priest, Toti, and also to the awesome, impossibly difficult landscape of northern Iceland. These two elements together scream movie potential. It’s just a matter of time before Hollywood comes knocking on Ms Kent’s door and I for one can’t wait to see what it all looks like on the silver screen.

Which of my friends would I recommend this to? Those who like to be transported by stories, those who love to be absorbed into another world, taken away and transformed somehow in the process.

Find out more about Burial Rites, including where to buy it, here.


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