13 June 2013

Burial Rites; Hannah Kent

Burial Rites: A NovelBurial Rites: A Novel by Hannah Kent
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Historic fiction about the last case of capital punishment in Iceland? Hmmmm... Ok, I'll try it. And it exceeded my expectations, so yay!

"Everyone" knows what happened: one night, Agnus, Fridrik and Sigga brutally killed Natan and P├ętur, then set Natan's farmhouse on fire to cover up their crime. Sentenced to death, Agnus is first held in a city, then moved to a small farmhouse in the valley she grew up in, under the watch of District Officer Jon Jonsson (and his wife and two daughters) and the spritual care of Assistant Reverend Toti. What everyone doesn't know is why, and which of the three was the leader (if there was one). Even more important, is it safe to allow Agnus to live with a local family, in or out of chains?

Over the course of the book we hear from Reverend Toti, the family Agnus is housed with, and in a first-person narrative, from Agnus herself. The life she's led, a bastard daughter of a woman who has three children with three different men, abandoned and left to the care of the parish, working long, hard hours helping in houses and fields as a servant, is explored, as is her desire for love and some form of escape. We also hear her tale of exactly what happened the night of the murder/fire. Of course, the question of Agnus' story being reliable is raised, and it's up to us to figure it out. Life in 1820s rural Iceland is pretty grim, with houses made of peat (which sometimes crumbles onto beds and at other times oozes out mold), extreme poverty and cold, not to mention a near-complete lack of what we consider amenities.

The ending is not a surprise, because the author couldn't change history. It's our reaction to it, depending on how we feel about Angus' story, that is important. Unfortunately, in her author's note, Ms. Kent doesn't include information on why this was the last execution in Iceland (was it this case that changed things? were there other factors?). The writing is filled with detail, really bringing the world Agnus lived in to life.

ARC provided by publisher.

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