Friday, August 22, 2014

Mini-Review: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Title: Burial Rites
Author: Hannah Kent
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Publication date: September 10, 2013
Rating: ★★★★★

Summary (via Goodreads):

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.

Burial Rites is best read at a slow pace, where you can linger over the evocative descriptions and the heavy events in Agnes Magnúsdóttir's life (as well as those surrounding her). Hannah Kent describes this book as a dark love letter to Iceland, which sounds about right to me. Everything feels painstakingly researched and written, and although much of it is speculative, it remains plausible enough that you convince yourself all of those things form the hidden truth.

Memories shift like loose snow in a wind, or are a chorale of ghosts all talking over one another. There is only ever a sense that what is real to me is not real to others, and to share a memory with someone is to risk sullying my belief in what has truly happened.

The ending of this novel is inevitable yet shocking. The writing is lush and captivating and the stories that are revealed will haunt you for days and days on end. But it's a beautiful work that has managed to bring Agnes back to life so that we can hear her side of things and remember her differently. In some ways, it's given Agnes a new legacy, where she is more than a murderess, more than an example to would-be criminals. She is a woman whose fate rested in the hands of those who were predisposed to punish. It is a true testament to Hannah Kent's storytelling ability that we walk away seeing her in a more ambiguous light.

Those who are not being dragged to their deaths cannot understand how the heart grows hard and sharp, until it is a nest of rocks with only an empty egg in it. I am barren; nothing will grow from me anymore. I am the dead fish drying in the cold air. I am the dead bird on the shore. I am dry, I am not certain I will bleed when they drag me out to meet the axe. No, I am still warm, my blood still howls in my veins like the wind itself, and it shakes the empty nest and asks where all the birds have gone, where have they gone?

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