BookBrowse Reviews Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reading Guide |  Reviews |  Beyond the book |  Readalikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio

Burial Rites

by Hannah Kent

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent X
Burial Rites by Hannah Kent
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

  • First Published:
    Sep 2013, 336 pages
    Apr 2014, 352 pages

  • Rate this book

Book Reviewed by:
Suzanne Reeder

Buy This Book

About this Book



Based on a true story, this gorgeous debut novel is a searching exploration of truth and absolution set in nineteenth century Iceland.

Hannah Kent's novel Burial Rites is as dark and cunning as the recurrent ravens in her exceptional debut. Based on real events, the novel recounts the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, an Icelandic workmaid charged with murder in 1828.

Born in Adelaide, Australia, in 1985, the author was a teenager when she traveled to Iceland and first heard Agnes's story. Kent's fictional interpretation is informed by years of research, including interviews with Icelanders, ministerial records, parish archives, censuses, local histories and publications.

In the novel's opening chapters, Agnes's sentence—beheading—is revealed. While she awaits execution she is moved from a holding with brutal, deplorable conditions to a farm called Kornsá. Using one of her few remaining rights, she requests as her spiritual advisor a young assistant reverend named Tóti.

At first, Agnes is feared and shunned by the family she joins at Kornsá: a district officer who is duty-bound to house her, as well as his wife Margrét and their two daughters, Steina and Lauga. Even the reverend is horrified in Agnes's presence and describes the seemingly doomed 33-year-old "like a new corpse, fresh dug from the grave." Early on, Tóti admits to Agnes that his training is incomplete. Secretly he agonizes about what kind of reverend he will be if he can't stand the sight of suffering.

During one of his visits to the Kornsá farm, Margrét confides in Tóti her resentment about sheltering Agnes (one of the Devil's children, she says), then focuses her attention on a small flock of ravens flying over a nearby mountain range. Citing traditional belief, Margrét asserts the correct name for a flock of ravens is a conspiracy. Yet the reverend says, "I thought they were called an unkindness." Later, as Margrét starts to soften toward the prisoner in her house, we discover that a conspiracy of sorts may apply to Agnes, as well, and the circumstances surrounding her impending fate.

While unkindness abounds in this richly plotted story, small yet significant good deeds also prevail. Tóti, for instance, is chosen by Agnes, not for the purpose of absolution but because he once helped her over a flooded river, a fleeting occurrence he had forgotten. And Steina, the eldest of the two daughters at Kornsá, remembers when she and her sister were children they had a brief, but impressionable, encounter with Agnes.

Despite Agnes's growing reservations about Tóti's youth ("They condemn me to death and I ask for a boy to coach me for it"), along with his own increasing doubts about saving her soul, he perseveres, hoping he may gain Agnes's trust and she will finally atone. Instead, as she reveals details from her past, she unnerves the earnest but naïve reverend with her cleverness and wariness, her insight about the ways of the world that still elude him. In one scene she says, "To know what a person has done, and to know who a person is, are very different things."

Through a varied narrative that includes multiple perspectives, letters and haunting poems, Kent's novel unravels with superb pacing and suspense, eventually revealing the truth of what happened the winter night two men were murdered at Illugastadir, a farm by the sea. Chapters employing Agnes's direct voice are especially powerful. Determined to close herself to the world and those who have condemned her, she thinks, "They will see the whore, the madwoman, the murderess, the female dripping blood into the grass and laughing with her mouth choked with dirt...They might see the lamb circled by ravens, bleating for a lost mother. But they will not see me. I will not be there."

Kent also keenly captures the uniqueness of her novel's setting: Iceland's beauty and isolation, its sense of solitude—and despair. Remembering Illugastadir, Agnes says to Toti, "The shore is of pebbles, and huge tangles of seaweed float in the bay and look like the hair of the drowned." Threaded throughout the novel are other striking (and frightening) images: "blizzards that howl like the widows of fishermen," shrieking seagulls, and a two-headed lamb.

In her author's note, Kent explains that after reading publications that were particularly contemptuous of Agnes's character, she wanted to supply a more ambiguous portrayal. What defies equivocation, however, is Kent's riveting account that imaginatively and thoughtfully explores who Agnes was, and what she did, resulting in a story as wrenching as it is emotionally chilling.

Reviewed by Suzanne Reeder

This review was originally published in September 2013, and has been updated for the April 2014 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

This review is available to non-members for a limited time. For full access, become a member today.
Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!

Beyond the Book:
  A Short History of Iceland

Editor's Choice

  • Book Jacket: I Found My Tribe
    I Found My Tribe
    by Ruth Fitzmaurice
    Ruth O'Neill was only 28 when she married film director Simon Fitzmaurice in 2004. Changing her...
  • Book Jacket: The Art of the Wasted Day
    The Art of the Wasted Day
    by Patricia Hampl
    Patricia Hampl wants you to know that daydreaming is not a waste of a day. Nor is spending time ...
  • Book Jacket: Circe
    by Madeline Miller
    Towards the end of Madeline Miller's novel Circe, the titular nymph is questioned by her son ...
  • Book Jacket: All the Names They Used for God
    All the Names They Used for God
    by Anjali Sachdeva
    Pre-publication press has already compared Anjali Sachdeva to Kelly Link and other genre-blending ...

Book Discussion
Book Jacket
Music of the Ghosts by Vaddey Ratner

A love story for things lost and restored, a lyrical hymn to the power of forgiveness.

About the book
Join the discussion!

Readers Recommend

  • Book Jacket

    Other People's Houses
    by Abbi Waxman

    A hilarious and poignant novel about four families and the affair that changes everything.
    Reader Reviews

Win this book!
Win The Leavers

The Leavers by Lisa Ko

One of the most anticipated books of 2017--now in paperback!


Word Play

Solve this clue:

T E H N Clothes

and be entered to win..

Books that     

 & enlighten

Visitors can view some of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only.

Join Today!

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends books that we believe to be best in class. Books that will whisk you to faraway places and times, that will expand your mind and challenge you -- the kinds of books you just can't wait to tell your friends about.