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Burial Rites by Hannah Kent ~ A Review

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Illustrated by: N/A

Series: N/A

Published: Pan Macmillan Publishers Ltd, August 2013

Edition: Audiobook

Narrated By: Morven Christie

Length: 12hours 2minutes

Genre: Historical Fiction, Mystery, Adult Fiction, Literary Fiction, Mystery Thriller

Where Did I Get It? Downloaded from

Summary (from Goodreads): 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?

Opening Line(s):

They said I must die. They said that I stole the breath from men, and now they must steal mine.


My Review:

I don’t read historical fiction very often, and when I do dabble it is almost always some sort of romance or has a paranormal twist.

Burial Rites has neither of those aspects and yet it is still one of the best books I think I have ever read (or listened to, as I had an audiobook copy).

The writing was stunning. Almost poetic at times (definitely poetic at others), lyrical and yet sharp and cutting when it needed to be.

The picture Kent created of Iceland in the early 1800s was complete – you felt the bitter cold of the snow and the gentle touch of the sunshine; you could smell the animal warmth of the cowshed and the smokiness of the kitchen; taste the warm milk and salty food; heard the ravens overhead and the cruel moaning of the wind, all in the stunning backdrop of the Northern Lights, wild ocean and looming mountains of the Icelandic coast.

I couldn’t step out of the world when I stopped listening, it stayed in my head and haunted my dreams the entire time it took me to listen to the whole novel. The characters and their stories felt real and honest and I found myself drawn into their lives like a ghost in the corner, watching everything unfold, learning secrets and sifting the facts from the gossip.

There was little to no light relief throughout the novel, it was a cascading tumble to the inevitable ending, as you would expect from a novel based on the life of a woman condemned to death. But this lack of comedy didn’t seem to matter, the changes in narrator were enough to stop you from drowning in too much misery and the matter of learning the truth in the mystery was a big factor in keeping you reading.

There were some graphic scenes and the images from at least one are going to stay with me for a considerable time. Kent has a way of making even the most harrowing moments beautiful and breaks your heart and fills you with fear all at the same time. Half of me wanted to press the stop button and walk away but it was compulsive and I rarely did, especially towards the end.

I cried my heart out more than once, feeling oddly hopeless as I did. It is strange because normally when you read a book, you have hope for the characters. Hope that even when things get tough, there will be some kind of a happy ending, perhaps not for everyone but at least for the main characters. You don’t have this when you know the novel is written about the last execution in Iceland – the ending is inevitable and unavoidable and no matter how much you want to shout ‘No!’ or bring about some magical happy ending, you know there won’t be one because it is based on fact and in reality Agnes Magnúsdóttir was beheaded on January 12th 1830.

There is power in hopelessness that I have never noticed so powerfully before until this novel. It is haunting and well worth the read if you are willing to stick with it despite the dark content.

I never would have given Burial Rites a second glance if it wasn’t chosen as the House of Blog Book Club January read but I am very glad I invested the time in it. Thanks Fran! 🙂

My Rating: 5/5*

7 thoughts on “Burial Rites by Hannah Kent ~ A Review

  1. I loved this review and cannot wait to get the book. I found myself with a lump in my throat just reading your words so there will probably be no hope for me when it comes to the actual novel!! Thank you for reviwing it. X


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