Set against Iceland’s stark landscape, Hannah Kent brings to vivid life the story of Agnes, who, charged with the brutal murder of her former master, is sent to an isolated farm to await execution.
Horrified at the prospect of housing a convicted murderer, the family at first avoids Agnes. Only Tóti, a priest Agnes has mysteriously chosen to be her spiritual guardian, seeks to understand her. But as Agnes’s death looms, the farmer’s wife and their daughters learn there is another side to the sensational story they’ve heard.
Riveting and rich with lyricism, BURIAL RITES evokes a dramatic existence in a distant time and place, and asks the question, how can one woman hope to endure when her life depends upon the stories told by others?
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I didn’t need much convincing going into this book; the Icelandic setting alone had me intrigued. Add to that an Australian author and a unique true story to give the book some historical depth and I was rather gung ho as I waded into the story.
My enthusiasm quickly waned though as it became clear that the book, while not especially long, was definitely more of a marathon than it was a sprint. The tone of the book is eerie. The setting is desolate but beautiful, and the subject matter is, well, bleak. And yet, for all that, there is a warmth to the writing the gave me the impression of having the tale murmured to me by a fire on a cold winter’s night. So I hunkered down with the characters and listened to what they had to say.
The term character driven plot is one that is bandied about all over the place, and yet, it is one of those term that I never really understand until I come across it for myself. Surely every plot is driven by its characters? But every now and then I find a truly character driven plot, and I can recognise it immediately for what it is. I found it most recently in Burial Rites. The characters are interesting and varied, and their attitudes toward one another range from total indifference, to disdain, to lust. I was impressed that with such a small cast of characters Kent was able to portray so many different relationships and sides to humanity.
As the blurb implies, this is a story of stories. And in the days before forensics, the most damning evidence could be found in circumstance and other people’s opinions. Both of these things stack up, quite neatly, against Agnes and her side of the story is as interesting as the court documents that supplement the case. Especially when, toward the end of the book, you finally hear how the pivotal event went down and the circumstances surrounding it. It’s part mystery, part history, and part mystical in a way.