Tuesday, April 29, 2014

book review: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

The backstory: Burial Rites, the debut novel by Australian author Hannah Kent, is shortlisted for this year's Baileys Prize. It's also one of my book club's May picks (we meet every other month and read two books.)

The basics: Set in Iceland in 1829, Burial Rites, is the story of Agnes Magnusdottir, a woman sentenced to die for murder. In this time before prisons, Agnes is sent to live with a family of two daughters on a farm to await her execution.

My thoughts: Burial Rites is based on real people; Agnes Magnusdottir is the last person to be executed in Iceland. I'm a big fan of fiction based on real people and real events, and this story is a fascinating glimpse into another time and place. Kent allows multiple voices to narrate this novel, which adds depth to the characters and events. It's an intentionally complicating look at a deceptively simple story.

There is a mystery at the heart of the narrative, but I'd stop short of calling it a mystery. This novel is, however, filled with intrigue and captivated me from its opening pages. While the question of how and why Natan was murdered (and perhaps by whom) is a compelling one, but it didn't drive the narrative for me. Instead, the characters are the focus here. Much of the action surrounds Agnes, but as fascinated as I was by Agnes, I was even more fascinated by the family forced to take her in.

Kent's writing is atmospheric and fluid. I felt it captured the mood, time and place beautifully, but I never found myself moved by a particular passage. The writing carried the story, but it didn't make me stop and marvel at the language.

The verdict: Burial Rites is an enchanting, atmospheric novel. It transported me to Iceland in the 1800's. It's certainly an accomplished debut novel, particularly for such a young writer (Kent was born in 1985), and I'm eager to follow Kent's career from here.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 353 pages
Publication date: September 10, 2013 (it's in paperback now)
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Burial Rites from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Hannah Kent's website and follow her on Twitter.

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!


  1. I really liked this book. Thanks for your great review and reminder of this awesome book.

    Have a good week.

    Silver's Reviews
    My Blog

  2. I enjoyed this one too, for the same reasons you did (characters and atmosphere). I agree that it wasn't really a mystery story.

  3. I haven't read this one. Your review reminds me that I need to do that soon. How many Bailey's nominees have you read so far? Has it been disappointing or are the nominees rightfully on the nomination list?

  4. I THINK I have this on my ereader. And I THINK I need to get off my arse and read it already. Everyone loves it!

  5. I enjoyed this. I expected it to be more didactic about the death penalty so I was surprised at just getting to read a very human take on the story.


Thank you for taking the time to comment. Happy reading!