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Burial Rites AmericanReviewed by Nina Longfield

Set in Iceland in 1829, Hannah Kent’s novel, Burial Rites, tells the story of Agnes Magnusdottir. The novel begins with a rumination of impending death. A death by execution. Agnes is a housemaid convicted in the death of her former master. The narration floats from Agnes’ point-of-view, to her chosen confessor priest, Thorvardur Jonsson (Toti), to the Jonsdottir family, and even letters and public announcements regarding Agnes’ alleged crimes. 

After being convicted of murder and sentenced to death, Agnes is sent to live with family of District Officer Jon Jonsdottir as it was determined the condemned should wait out her final days in the company of upright Christians who inspire repentance. The Jonsdottir family is at first angered to be used as the holding house of this condemned woman of ill reputation, but each becomes embroiled in personal conflict as their regard towards Agnes either darkens or changes to pity, or possibly understanding, as the sentence drags through the summer and into fall.

Agnes’ imprisonment is open and without shackles. She is soon seen as another servant on the farm as the Jonsdottirs see her aptitude in household and farm duties. Throughout her open imprisonment, Assistant Reverend (Toti) Jonsson attends to Agnes’ soul, attempting to bring her back into the Christian fold. It is unclear whether Agnes is seeking to reclaim her soul or offer her side of her story, but Agnes’ story is slowly revealed through hers and Toti’s visits. As summer drags into fall and the weather fouls, the family, Agnes, and Toti are forced into the lounge together but this does not impede Agnes from telling her story as she seems compelled to reveal her past before her days come to an end. 

Burial Rites starts a little slow with the public announcements, letters, and ruminations. This all makes the first dozen pages a bit of a drag and the story difficult to engage with. However, the narrative picks up with Agnes’ transfer to the Jonsdottir farm. Agnes’ transfer, along with the earlier entries, work to pull the reader deeper into Agnes’ story. Within a few chapters, Burial Rites became difficult to put down. Hannah Kent’s writing is quiet, intriguing, and her novel is beautifully written. Burial Rites is a novel to savor.

Rating: ★★★★★ 

Nina Longfield is a writer living in Oregon’s fertile wine country. When she is not reading or writing in her spare time, Nina enjoys hiking in the hills surrounding her cabin.

Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Little, Brown and Company. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.