Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

April 16, 2014 Crime, Historical Fiction 35

Halló Bookworms,

Today we’re going to Iceland. Yes, the land of Björk and that volcano that destroyed air travel for a time in 2010 (Eyjafjallajökull, say that three times fast!) Every blogger in all the land, it seems, read and adored Burial Rites by Hannah Kent, and I could no longer in good conscience go about having not read it. Call it peer pressure. In any case, I just finished reading Burial Rites, and I’m going to tell you all about it. Whether you like it or not. Because I’m just like that.

burial ritesBurial Rites tells the story of Agnes. Agnes is accused of the murder of her employer and one of his associates. She was convicted of the crime with along with two companions, and sentenced to death. It’s 1829. And it’s Iceland. They didn’t exactly have a great prison system infrastructure, so they sent Agnes to  the modest family farm of a low ranking government official to await her execution.

At first the family is pretty freaked out at the idea of keeping a convicted murderer in their home. They live in an old-school Icelandic dwelling where everyone sleeps in a single room- a murderer in their home meant a murderer in their bedroom. Agnes isn’t really what they expect, though. She’s not some blood-thirsty knife-wielding psycho, she’s a woman well versed in farm work who never balks at the icky tasks. As time goes on, Agnes’s heartbreaking story slowly comes to light.

The novel is based in part on a true story- Agnes did, in fact, live. She was convicted of murder in 1829 and sentenced to death. Hannah Kent did a beautiful job of giving a voice to a person who would otherwise be lost to history. A gorgeous, heart-wrenching book.

I really enjoyed Burial Rites, but I’ve got to admit I fell down the Wikipedia rabbit hole several times while reading this. I know virtually nothing about Iceland, so I kept looking things up. My real stumbling block, though, was the names. Holy cow, Icelandic, man. Accent marks and umlauts and discordant groupings of consonants! I’ve heard that Finnish is the most difficult language to learn (that’s according to an eccentric English professor I once had) but Icelandic has got to be right up there. Wowza.

Talk to me, Bookworms. Do you know much about Iceland? What are your immediate associations with it? (Anybody who says D2: The Mighty Ducks gets 5 knucklepuck points!)

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35 Responses to “Burial Rites by Hannah Kent”

  1. TJ

    I loved this book. I found the ending to be very powerful. That being said, I am glad that Kent included a short introduction to Icelandic names and places at the beginning of the book and that I don’t have to go sort out who is related to whom simply be looking at their names. 🙂

  2. Ashley F

    My book club is reading this in a few months!

    OMG D2. I kinda loved those movies. What can I say, I’m Canadian and Joshua Jackson was adorable.

    I have quite a few friends that have been to Iceland. It’s not in my top 10 although when I went to Scotland, because of weather we diverted north over Iceland. I remember looking out the window and going…why am I seeing Mountains? I should still be seeing water right?!?! That being said, every time I fly to Europe and I have the opportunity to Layover in Reijkavik I talk myself out of it because it’s usually at like 3am and for 2 hours so it’s not like I can actually DO ANYTHING.

    P.s am I the only one who considers layovers just so they can “see” a city they wouldn’t otherwise travel to?

    • Ashley F

      OMG I spelled it wrong, and I google checked it and everything!! Reykjavik. Reykjavik. I can’t handle a language that uses more J’s and K’s per word than like 50% of the English language combined.

    • Words For Worms

      I rarely fly because I’m such a homebody, but that is totally something I would do. When I was 14 by best friend moved to Maryland. I rode along with her parents on the trip across several states, and one afternoon her mom drove me just over the border into Delaware so I could check another state off my list :). I also stopped to pee in Pennsylvania on that trip. Totally counts as having visited if you leave DNA there.

      • Ashley F

        LOL I was totally the chick at the Hoover Dam who ran across the street just to say I had been to Utah.

        I figure if I chill at the airport for an hour, grab some hopefully ethnic lunch, it counts! I’ve been mentally plotting my next big Euro adventure and may do exactly this.

  3. Megan M.

    I don’t know anything about Iceland except that it isn’t covered in ice… at least I think that’s true. :/ I may be smart about some things, but geography is not one of them!

    • Words For Worms

      It’s not totally covered in ice, it’s farmable sometimes, but still inhospitable. I wouldn’t want to live there. Illinois is cold enough for me, thank you very much!

  4. Wayne

    A little bit. You used to be able to get cheap airfares stopping there on the way to Europe. The women there look great as they are descendants of Vikings. They were originally neutral during WW2 but the British had to occupy the Island due to the U Boat menace and then America occupied Iceland. They fought the British for awhile over cod fishing rights. They are a member of NATO and a fairly conservative country. A nice place to visit for awhile.

  5. Darlene @ Lost in Literature

    Nope. All I know is Iceland was green and Greenland was icy.

  6. Rhian

    I loved this book and was lucky enough to see Ms Kent speaking at a writers’ festival earlier this year. It was very interesting to hear about why she chose Agnes’ story and the research she undertook.

    I was really hoping for a happy ending even though I knew there wouldn’t be one.

  7. Jennine G.

    I didn’t know anything about Iceland when I read this, but I was too wrapped up in the story to notice I think. I loved the parts Agnes narrates…beautiful writing.

    • Words For Worms

      Oh yes, the Agnes parts were my favorite too! I’m not usually one for picking out book quotes, but there was one line where Agnes said something about the sky being so blue she wanted to grab handfuls and eat it. That kind of imagery is all over the place and soooooo fabulous!

  8. Leah @ Books Speak Volumes

    Yaaaaay Burial Rites! I love how you said Kent gives voice to a woman who would otherwise be lost to history. So true.

    I don’t really know anything about Iceland except that it has crazy beautiful geography and a Blue Lagoon that I MUST soak in someday.

  9. Elena

    I don’t know much about Iceland either, but after reading some crime fiction set on the island, I can tell you it is a very interesting culture to learn about and quite easy to relate to, even though for a Spaniard like me everything sounds unpronounceable!

    • Words For Worms

      Spanish is lovely that way! I took Spanish in school and the letters are so orderly, pronunciation and spelling is fabulous. What a gorgeous language!

  10. Brittny

    Burial Rites has been on my TBR list since I first read about it coming out on Goodreads! I unfortunately haven’t gotten around to reading it yet, but Iceland is on our list to visit while we’re living in Europe.

    Btw- I loved the Mighty Ducks references! I went through the internet to find them so I could watch them all again a few months ago. 🙂


  11. Marie Ann Bailey

    Glad to read your review, Katie! I have a copy of Burial Rites but haven’t read it yet. I purchased it because I thought the story was compelling but I hadn’t read any reviews. Your review and the comments make me feel like I’ve made a good purchase. Now I just need to get through my other books that are in line ahead of it 🙂

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