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Burial Rites (Hannah Kent, Picador)

Burial Rites is an impressively assured debut from Adelaide writer Hannah Kent, who made headlines last year when her manuscript triggered a major bidding war. It’s based on the true story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last woman to be beheaded in Iceland in 1829 for her role in the murder of two men. The novel begins as Agnes is brought to a remote farmhouse in northern Iceland, where she awaits her execution. The family are uncomfortable with a murderess in their midst, but the young Reverend Tóti, who is appointed as Agnes’ spiritual guardian, is sympathetic, and allows Agnes to tell her story—a pathetic tale of a pauper born into servitude, who is intelligent and ambitious but has few prospects in life. It’s a bleak story, which is slow to build as Agnes works her way towards the night of the murders, but it’s worth the wait; the emotional tension in the final chapters is exquisite. While Agnes tells her story, life around the farm continues as normal, from haymaking to spinning and knitting to—in one particularly stomach-turning scene—the slaughter of sheep and production of blood sausages. Kent’s ability to bring vividly to life this foreign world is one of the novel’s highlights. Burial Rites comes with a cover quote from Geraldine Brooks, and this book should appeal to that author’s fans. It also reminded me of Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace

Andrea Hanke is editor-in-chief of Books+Publishing


Category: Reviews