Review: Burial Rites

Iceland's last executions for murder took place on January 12, 1830--beheading, as prescribed by Danish law. One of them was a young woman, Agnes Magnusdottir. Burial Rites, Hannah Kent's debut novel, renders poor Agnes's unforgettable and woeful story brilliantly. Throughout, Kent juxtaposes rich, imagistic prose with dry, insensate excerpts from official documents about the case to create two strikingly different texts.

Kent has two first-person narrators: Agnes and the young, inexperienced Reverend Toti, assigned to save her soul before her execution. "They said that I stole the breath from men, and now they must steal mine," Agnes says. "I will vanish into the air and the night... until it is only their own light by which they see themselves." Another, third-person voice seemingly watches the proceedings from above; the three voices are woven together to create a deeply emotional, gripping story.

Iceland had no prisons at the time; Agnes, awaiting execution, is housed in the barn of a God-loving family who beat her mercilessly, in a lightless room filled with her own fetid breath and the stench from the chamberpot. "I am scabbed with dirt," she reports. "My hair feels like a greased rope." Then she's moved to another family's stark and cold cottage--to them, she "looked like a new corpse, fresh dug from the dirt." Even the wife, an old crone, Margret, takes pity on her.

Now able to work outside at harvest, to see the sky, Agnes feels better. Reverend Toti visits often and, story by story, she tells him about her wretched life, abandoned as a child, maid to families who treated her like a slave. The story behind the crime becomes clearer. Agnes, another maid (later pardoned) and Natan, a man she had feelings for, are convicted of stealing from, then killing, two men and burning down the barn where the crime took place. Kent keeps Agnes's guilt ambiguous. But we are still sympathetic, intimate observers of her condition, both physical and emotional, and her impending fate.

Burial Rites could have been a stark, dull tale but it's far from that. A cross between the grim, moorish atmosphere of Wuthering Heights and the cold, religiously-infested repression of a Bergman film, Kent's novel emerges alive, triumphant and sublimely poetic. --Tom Lavoie

Shelf Talker: Though dark and baleful, this stunning debut novel about a young 19th-century Icelandic woman executed for murder is uplifting and overpowering in its telling.

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