The Story: Based on actual events, Burial Rites, a stand-alone novel by Hannah Kent, tells the interwoven story of two souls against the backdrop of 1800s Iceland. Agnes is a condemned killer sent to live with a farming family until her execution. While there, she seeks the religious aid and emotional comfort of Toti, a local priest, who helps her work through her trauma and face her final days. Through it all, Agnes strives to cleanse her soul but wonders if she can ever truly be redeemed.
My Take: I confess that books such as Burial Rites (which is what I would call literary fiction) tend to not hold much appeal for me. However, the premise of this novel intrigued me. I gravitate towards redemption stories and this certainly sounded like it fit the bill, so I decided to check it out. Not to mention it’s set in Iceland, which intrigued me even further. I’ve never read any story set in Iceland before (aside from some Icelandic sagas) and I love exploring world literature (though Hannah Kent is actually Australian, but that’s cool – you don’t have to belong to a particular culture to write about it, in my opinion). However, while Burial Rites certainly possessed a sense of dark beauty with some warmth, it ultimately left me feeling cold and wasn’t the type of redemption story I was expecting.
To be honest, while the plot tended to plod at times for me, the writing itself kept me reading. It’s a realistic style that delves into rich descriptive details, no matter how gorgeous or vile they might be, from winter-bound natural landscapes to the putridness of a prison cell. Luckily, none of the descriptions turn into purple prose. Instead, the people, places, and environments are presented artistically with cold realism and it was a pleasure to watch the details unfold in my mind.
In terms of narrative, this story is related in both first person (through the eyes of Agnes, the condemned killer) and third person (through Toti and the farming family who takes Agnes in). Normally, I feel iffy about split narratives but I thought this novel maintained a good balance. Agnes’ portions revealed her inner turmoil, not only about her impending death but also over past actions. It does make for gloomy reading at times but it steers clear of turning angsty. Likewise, the third person sections reveal the “behind-the-scenes” of how the family who agrees to house Agnes feels about having a killer in their midst and the priest who does his best to minister to Agnes. (This novel is, in fact, based on a true story though I’m sure it contains embellishments for drama’s sake.)
To his credit, Toti’s Christianity is very genuine. He struggles with his faith and with God but never loses sight of what he truly believes. He’s generally good-willed, cares about Agnes, and keeps his motives and actions towards her pure. He also doesn’t brow-beat Agnes; instead, he preaches to her gently about forgiveness and God’s grace and mercy. Never does he force her to confess Christ as her Savior though he makes it no secret that he believes that is the only way Agnes will ever have true peace. And while doing so may not save her from the executioner’s block, at least Agnes’ soul will be spared.
However, as compelling as the setting and narrative were, I still held Burial Rites at arm’s length. Make no mistake – this is not a pick-me-up read and the ending isn’t what I was hoping for. In fact, it kind of made me feel like the whole book was an extended moot point in that all it did was give Agnes a chance to clean her slate, so to speak, but to no avail (in order for me to talk about this, I will be unleashing a spoiler regarding the novel’s ending)….
I initially thought evidence would be found to pardon Agnes; yet in the end, she is beheaded anyway. This was a real downer for me because I like to see antiheroic characters given a second chance. Granted, one could argue that Agnes’ redemption came in a less tangible form than saving her physical life, but still – the book’s ending seemed a bit overdrawn and slightly overemotive just to drive home the point that Agnes pays for her crimes but she’s made her peace with it. Though, again, this is based on a true story of the last woman to be executed by beheading in Iceland, so to alter it by allowing the female lead to live might have been disrespectful to the truth.
Okay, end of spoilers.
Language – Minimal and sporadic.
Violence – Even though the chief character here is a convicted killer, and multiple flashbacks do reenact the crime, any deaths are rendered in an artistic way, not in a visceral manner, with the focus being more on the emotional aspect of the event and not so much on graphic/gory details. Granted, the dismal tone and overall topic make this an adult’s-only read and isn’t anything younger readers or teens would probably be interested in.
Sexual Content – While most of the book is devoid of sexual content, there is a scene where two unmarried characters have consensual sex in a barn. This moment is brief and avoids overly-graphic details, but the act itself is described bluntly so there is no subtly or vagueness to it.
Overall, Burial Rites avoids being bland or pompous. However, I sense its depressive tone and subject matter won’t be to all reading tastes. If you’re looking for world fiction that makes for a gorgeous read and respectfully tackles issues such as faith, redemption, and forgiveness, then this might be a good choice. But if you shy away from books that start and end with a downer, you might want to leave Burial Rites at rest.