Summary and book reviews of Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Burial Rites

by Hannah Kent

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

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Book Reviewed by:
Suzanne Reeder

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About this Book

Book Summary

A brilliant literary debut, inspired by a true story: the final days of a young woman accused of murder in Iceland in 1829.

Set against Iceland's stark landscape, Hannah Kent brings to vivid life the story of Agnes, who, charged with the brutal murder of her former master, is sent to an isolated farm to await execution.

Horrified at the prospect of housing a convicted murderer, the family at first avoids Agnes. Only Tóti, a priest Agnes has mysteriously chosen to be her spiritual guardian, seeks to understand her. But as Agnes's death looms, the farmer's wife and their daughters learn there is another side to the sensational story they've heard.

Riveting and rich with lyricism, Burial Rites evokes a dramatic existence in a distant time and place, and asks the question, how can one woman hope to endure when her life depends upon the stories told by others?


They said I must die. They said that I stole the breath from men, and now they must steal mine. I imagine, then, that we are all candle flames, greasy-bright, fluttering in the darkness and the howl of the wind, and in the stillness of the room I hear footsteps, awful coming footsteps, coming to blow me out and send my life up away from me in a gray wreath of smoke. I will vanish into the air and the night. They will blow us all out, one by one, until it is only their own light by which they see themselves. Where will I be then?

Sometimes I think I see it again, the farm, burning in the dark. Sometimes I can feel the ache of winter in my lungs, and I think I see the flames mirrored in the ocean, the water so strange, so flickered with light. There was a moment during that night when I looked back. I looked back to watch the fire, and if I lick my skin I can still taste the salt. The smoke.

It wasn't always so cold.

I hear footsteps.


Public Notice


Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. What do you make of the historical documents (both real and fictionalized) that begin each chapter? How did these change or aid your understanding of Agnes's story?
  2. Agnes often comments on the ways in which she has been silenced, or had her story altered by the authorities. Why do you think she has such an anguished relationship to language?
  3. Fate and destiny are major themes in this novel, for Agnes seems fated to have come to the end she does. Could she have escaped this destiny? Was there a turning point in her life that she might have avoided?
  4. Are Steina, Lauga and Margrét changed by Agnes's time with them? Has her fate changed theirs in any way?
  5. Death is a major theme in this novel, but it is also about life and living. ...
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BookBrowse Review


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 the murders occurred. Chapters employing Agnes’s direct voice are especially powerful when she contemplates death. Kent also keenly captures the uniqueness of her novel’s setting: Iceland’s beauty and isolation, its sense of solitude—and despair.   (Reviewed by Suzanne Reeder).

Full Review Members Only (719 words).

Media Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Kent smoothly incorporates her impressive research ... while giving life to these historical figures and suspense to their tales.

Kirkus Reviews

Starred Review. With language flickering, sparkling and flashing like the northern lights...A magical exercise in artful literary fiction.


Starred Review. Haunting reading from a bright new talent.

Library Journal

Starred Review. In the company of works by Hilary Mantel, Susan Vreeland, and Rose Tremain, this compulsively readable novel entertains while illuminating a significant but little-known true story. Highly recommended.

Author Blurb Charlotte Rogan, author of The Lifeboat
Hannah Kent's gorgeous and haunting Burial Rites will touch your heart.

Author Blurb Madeline Miller, author of The Song of Achilles
So gripping I wanted to rush through the pages, but so beautifully written I wanted to linger over every sentence. Hannah Kent's debut novel is outstanding.

Author Blurb Megan Abbott, author of Dare Me
Hannah Kent's Burial Rites shows how a seemingly simple tale - a murder, a family, a remote landscape - can prove mythic in scale in the right hands. Spell-binding and moving, it's the kind of novel that gets under your skin, moves your blood, your heart. A bravura debut.

Author Blurb Geraldine Brooks, winner of the Pulitzer Prize
Here is an original new voice, with a deep and lovely grasp of language and story. Hannah Kent's first novel, Burial Rites, is an accomplished gem, its prose as crisp and sparkling as its northern setting.

Author Blurb Anne Berry, author of The Hungry Ghosts
A compelling read, heart-breaking and uplifting in equal measure.

Reader Reviews


Fate plays a hand in this historical novel
Themes of capital punishment, injustice, and poverty are balanced somewhat by friendship and kindness. The imagery is bold and at times breathtaking. The story is haunting.

Susan G

Simply beautiful
The other reviews here have said it all. I want to also recommend the audio version of the book. I listened to a Hatchett Audio recording, 2013, read by Morven Christie. Her beautiful voice brought Agnes and her story to life in a way that few audio ...   Read More

Cloggie Downunder

a powerful and moving first novel
Burial Rites is the first novel by Australian author, Hannah Kent. In 2003, during an exchange year in Iceland, Hannah Kent became interested with events leading up to the last execution to occur in that country. Thus began ten years of research into...   Read More

Diane P

Burial Rites
Burial Rites based on the true story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, In 1829, she was convicted along with two others, of murdering two men and setting a house a fire to cover their crimes. Agnes was the last person in Iceland to receive a capital punishment ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

A Short History of Iceland

The Republic of Iceland, the setting for Hannah Kent's debut novel Burial Rites, has a deep and intriguing history.

  • Located west of Scandinavia and just south of the Arctic Circle, the first confirmed settlement of Iceland was in the 9th and 10th centuries by Norsemen from Scandinavia and Scotland. Though questions remain about the actual events leading up to the settlement, Icelandic tradition suggests Norsemen were fleeing the tyranny of the Norwegian King Harald I Haarfagri. According to early Icelandic records, Celts from the British Isles were among the early emigrants, having been taken as slaves and wives by the Norsemen.

  • In 930 a legislative assembly known as the Althing was established (literally all-thing, general assembly)....

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