Wow. If I had to pick a favorite book of the year, so far, this would be it. Everything about this book exceeded my expectations, even though acclaim for this book has been VERY high (among other things, it was a Women’s Prize shortlist pick and won the 2014 Indie Awards Debut Fiction of the Year).
Burial Rites is historical fiction, taking place in Iceland around 1828. It tells the story of the last execution in Iceland, where three people were accused and convicted of murdering two men. Agnes Magnussdottir is one of the two women convicted of the crime. The book begins with the conviction and tells the story of how, lacking a place to hold these three convicts, each are sent to live in the home of a public official, and each receives spiritual guidance to help them prepare for their executions. (Even in 1828 Iceland is more thoughtful about executions than the U.S. is today.)
Agnes tells much of the story to the young assistant reverend she personally requested as her spiritual counselor, slowly revealing her troubled past and her part in the murders.
What makes this book so amazing?
The writing is gorgeous. It’s slow and thoughtful and beautiful. It’s not so much about what did or didn’t happen, but who everyone is.
The setting. I don’t know anything about Iceland, but there are books where setting plays a huge role in the story and this is one of them. You may struggle with all the difficult character and place names, as I did, but they are largely based in fact, so I’m glad they weren’t changed or dumbed down. The climate and culture of Iceland looms large in this book, which is surprisingly a first novel written by an Australian.
The history. Kent tells us at the end that she used real letters and articles and people to tell this story, which I loved.
The characters. Agnes is such an amazing, strong character. Even before you know much about her, you ache for what she has to go through. Despite losing everything – her possessions, her reputation, her freedom, and soon her life – she rarely gives in to pity. Although when she does, it’s absolutely heartbreaking.
They will say ‘Agnes’ and see the spider, the witch caught in the webbing of her own fateful weaving. They might see the lamb circled by ravens, bleating for a lost mother. But they will not see me. I will not be there.
Kent says in her epilogue that she wanted to give this woman a voice. She’s succeeded.
I don’t want to tell you too much about this book, but it’s amazing. I read about half of it last weekend, when I knew I had a final paper to write for class. I literally could not put it down.