Burial Rites – Hannah Kent

Do yourself a favor and put this at the top of your fall ‘to read’ list.  Everyone is going to read this book.

Hannah Kent spent a gap year in Iceland 10+ years ago and that is where the seeds for this book were born.  She was not having a good time when she arrived and it wasn’t until she saw Agnes Magnusdottir’s grave and asked about it that her thoughts began to change.  This novel about the (not a spoiler I think but if you want to know nothing about the book don’t read further) the last person executed in Iceland.

Ms. Kent had originally intended to write a non-fiction book but after 10 years of research she decided that the best story that she could tell for Agnes was through the format of a novel.

From the first pages the reader is pulled deep into the Iceland of 1829. This might sound onerous, but it isn’t.  Some writers try to bring you into a time period by steeping you in details that shift you drastically from your own time period.  Kent’s art is far more subtle.  Every aspect of life is just different enough that somehow by merely telling the story,  there is no question about where and WHEN you are.  I say subtle but it is almost something more.  I am a vegetarian and yet as the preparation of a sheep from animal to food was described over the course of several pages, I wasn’t disgusted, merely…there.  I expect this might not make sense until you read it for yourself (as I am most certainly not Hanna Kent)

Agnes Magnusdottir stands accused of being part of the murder.  As there are no prisons in Iceland, she is remanded into the custody of a local Christian family.  Unsurprisingly, they are not particularly happy about being forced to house a murderess, but they have no choice..the man of the house has enjoyed certain privileges as a council member and housing criminals is one of the prices he must pay.

All those that convicted of murder must have religious council.  Agnes chooses a young priest names Toti.  Toti comes to understand that simply praying over her will not achieve what he sees as God’s will, he determines that he should *listen* to what she has to say.

Over the course of days as Agnes tells parts of her life story to Toti, the family who she lives with also listens as the room is divided only by a curtain. All who witness are changed.

On a side note, the editor admits that every time she has read the book she cries at the end.  Every. time.

Interspersed with historical documents and poetry from the time, Burial Rites is extremely compelling, humane, richly described yet in a way that is as sparse as the Icelandic landscape Burial Rites is destined for the top spots this fall.

While it waits to be seen if Kent’s genius comes from the story that needed to be told or innate ability, there can be no doubt that this book is worth all of the accolades being showered upon it.

Burial Rites will be available  September 10, 2013.  You can pre-order it now from Amazon, make a note to purchase it at your local bookstore, or put a hold (and it will be a long wait, I’m telling you this book is going to be one of the hottest things this fall) on it at your library

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