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Review: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

I read Burial Rites by Hannah Kent some time ago, in fact you may remember I was planning to take it on holiday with me. I read it by the ocean in Bar Harbour, Maine. We stayed in the beautiful Holbrook House B&B and the elegant guest lounge there saw me curled up with the enthralling Burial Rites for several hours at a time.

Holbrook House B&B, Bar Harbour, Maine

I first heard about Burial Rites from my husband’s Australian family. They live in Adelaide and have some loose connections to Hannah Kent. They were excited that an Australian author was making a splash in the UK, having seen posters for Burial Rites on the London Tube. I didn’t think too much more about it until browsing bookshops in May, planning my holiday reading list. I saw Burial Rites on one of the tables and picked it up. It described a novel set in Iceland in the early nineteenth century. Not what I was expecting at all. I have always been slightly fascinated by Icelandic sagas and the quotes on the blurb convinced me to take the plunge:

This compelling, ripped-from-real-life tale reminds me of Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace.

A story of swirling sagas, poetry, bitterness, claustrophobia…holds an exhilaration that borders on the sublime

As a huge fan of Alias Grace and Margaret Atwood in general; that mixed with Icelandic sagas meant that I just couldn’t resist. I originally bought it just as a Kindle e-book, but loved it so much it has since joined my library in paperback.

Burial Rites is the story of the last women executed in Iceland, Agnes Magnusdottir. It is bleak, thoughtful, perplexing and utterly addictive. The writing is spare and intriguing. The landscape is as much of a character as the people, something which I really enjoy, having grown up with the Brontes. The descriptions of the bleak valleys, the lonely coast and the cramped, damp Icelandic dwellings, badstofas, are well drawn and haunting. The portrayal of Agnus is also sophisticated. It is a character exploration of a flawed human being in flawed circumstances. In her end note, Kent explains how she first heard about Agnes in an exchange trip to Iceland as a student and how she was keen to deliver a more ambiguous interpretation of Agnes Magnusdottir than the traditional monster (hence the comparisons to Alias Grace, another ambiguous murderess). Kent’s love of Iceland and meticulous research makes this a very unusual book. Kent is a year younger than I am and her talent fills me with admiration. You need to read this!

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