Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Rating – 5 stars

A small fact:
You are going to die….does this worry you?
— Markus Zusak ,The Book Thief

I started this book with a lot of curiosity, since reading the blurb had me excited. What I had not anticipated was the aftermath – I knew it was possible to love a book, hate a book, even be mildly amused by one but not necessarily like it. 

I had almost forgotten what it feels like, to be completely drained, besotted and heartbroken by a book. 

This one reminded me of the feeling.

A book which left me with completely heartbroken just like The Book Thief. I envy these geniuses at times like these, when words written by them make me feel as if I am a part of the tale they weave. That I am more than a mere spectator who is witnessing events from afar with the hope that it would bring me a certain amount of amusement; that I have been somehow granted a passage to travel to those places which sometimes make me laugh out loud or cry.  That I am one among them.

I could think  of no other way to begin my review, other than by using the words I did, the quote which merely states a universal truth, which is possibly universally denied for as long as possible.

Burial Rites, penned by Hannah Kent finds its inspiration in true events, set in Iceland in the year 1829. It’s a fictionalized account of the last capital punishment carried out in Iceland of Agnes Magnúsdóttir and Friðrik Sigurðsson, convicted for committing the murders of Natan Ketilsson and Pétur Jónsson.

Prior to this book I never knew of this event,  and today it has me reeling. Agnes who  is one of the three sentenced for the crime is the book’ protagonist.  In unraveling the circumstances surrounding, Agnes’ crime we trace the path of her life. 

Before the days leading to her execution, while arrangements are to be made, in accordance to the orders of the King of Denmark,  Agnes is made to stay with the Jónsson family in Kormsá. Under orders from the District Commissioner  Björn Blöndal, the head of the family  Jón Jónsson, a government employee, agrees to take Agnes under his roof  as a servant, despite the opposition of his family – his wife and two daughters and his own reluctance since they will be compensated for the same.

Margrét, Jón’ wife, fears for the safety of her family however knows that their situation presents little other opportunities for their financial condition to improve and they could use the money. Her daughters Lauga and Steina, initially are as afraid as their mother and do not like  it that a murderer will be under their roof,  however are helpless against what their parents ultimately decide. 

Kent was inspired to write this book after spending a year in Iceland over a decade ago and it is clear she has done a thorough job. I find it astonishing on reading the book, this is her début novel. The era of 1800’s and the harsh, cold and miserable setting of Iceland is narrated in a way that is both haunting and tragic at the same time.

From the first page itself the grim nature of the book sets a kind of peculiar mood, a tone if you may, in which the book is written. There are no pleasant moments, none at all. There is no attempt to arouse sympathy or pity for Agnes, not explicitly; and it is this very fact that makes the book interesting and so darn likable.

Agnes knows what she is destined for, she is by no account truly ready for it, but she is ready to face it. She has no other options of course. The only thing she asks for after being convicted of the crime in one of her remaining few rights is that Assistant Reverend Thorvardur Jonsson be her spiritual advisor in her last days. Better known as Toti,  Reverend Jonsson is stunned to hear from the District Commissioner. Not only because he has never known Agnes but also because he feels he is perhaps too underqualified or ill-suited to the job. While he does mull over rejecting the request, he does come around to the idea and finally agrees to help Agnes prepare for her death.

Toti becomes the medium via which the reader learns of Agnes – her roots, her life as a maid who worked in different farms and finally Agnes the woman convicted of brutal murders. More than an advisor, he acts as a friend or a therapist to be more precise who lends a patient ear to Agnes, as she narrates her tale. Initially repulsed and to an extent in fear of her, Toti gradually finds himself concerned for Agnes as a friend and perhaps more. 

While Margrét acts as and comes across as a no-nonsense woman, she warms up to Agnes slowly but steadily. She does not welcome Agnes in her home without reservations of course, but you catch a glimpse of the real woman who hides behind a stern mask early on. Compassionate, caring and independent in her own way Margrét shields Agnes as much as possible from her gossip mongering neighbors. Stern when need be and kind when required Margrét  controls her home with an iron fist, however she suffers a respiratory disorder, one which will ultimately result in her death. The person kindest to Agnes, even more than her mother Margrét, in a way is her elder daughter Steina. 

While neither Natan nor Pétur are saints, their deaths and the brutal nature of their killing depicts Agnes in a way that makes her out to be the devil incarnate.  As the novel progresses and the family hears Agnes speak to Toti, of her life and finally the circumstances that surround  Natan  and Pétur’ deaths, their perception of her begins to alter gradually.  Of all but one – Lauga, the younger daughter.

While talking to Toti and gradually Margrét, Agnes does seem to find some amount of comfort, the finality of her verdict bogs her down every step of the way. How can it not? Death is unavoidable of course, but to look over your shoulder every day while you await to hear,the day that has been decided to be your last is terrifying, maddening to say the least.

I might have starved to death. I would be mud-slick, stuffed to the guts with cold and hopelessness, and my body might know it was doomed and give up on its own. That would be better than idly winding wool on a snowy day, waiting for someone to kill me.

Not much is known of Agnes, but Kent has taken, what is still found buried in the archives through her research, and fleshed out a character, who will leave an indelible impression on your mind.  And not just Agnes, but each character is written with such a raw honesty that they don’t seem like characters you are reading about, rather they come across as people you and I may know.  From a doomed Agnes to Natan, whose depiction makes him come across as someone with a bipolar. 

However it is her description of a frigid, stark Iceland that has truly won me over. The way Kent has treated the place, Iceland does not stay just the setting  of her novel, rather it comes across as a character in itself, really you gotta read this book to experience it. 

One of the best books I have come across, not only in terms of debuts I have read this year, but ever. Adding this one to my Favorite pile. As for Kent ‘ authorial skills, all I will say is she has a fan in me with her maiden offering, now I cannot wait to read more of her works. 

Recommended to absolutely everyone.

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