Hannah Kent's Burial Rites takes place in 19th century Iceland, a place that is fairly mysterious to those of us that have been mostly stateside our entire lives. I figured the setting alone would make this an interesting read.
The Situation: It is 1828 and Jon and Margret, along with their daughters Steina and Lauga, run their small farm in Iceland, depending on whatever the land produces in order to survive through the harsh winters. The family has just received word that they are to have a young woman named Agnes stay with them for awhile. The family already has little space to spare in their small house, and after feeding themselves and their servants, there isn't much left. Plus, Agnes is a criminal charged with the gruesome murders of two men. She has requested to be moved to this valley since it is where she grew up, and she knows the Assistant Reverend who lives nearby.
The Problem: Not only is Agnes a criminal, but the reason she has been moved from the prison to a home is because she has been sentenced to die and is now just waiting for the fateful day to arrive. Jon and Margret fear that she may display the criminal behavior that she has become known for while living in their home, and they worry over their daughters' safety and hope they don't become influenced by her. Also, the Assistant Reverend, Toti, fears he won't be able to help her as he is still young and a novice and not sure how to go about counseling her. But the longer Agnes does stay, the more the family gets used to not only having an extra pair of hands, but also her company. And after hearing her side of the story, it becomes clear to them that people are not always as they first appear.
Genre, Themes, History: This is an historical fiction novel set in 19th century Iceland, when death by beheading was still an acceptable form of capital punishment in that country. Agnes was a real person charged for the real murders of two men. She and two others, a man and another woman, were not only charged with their murders, but also for burning down the home that they were staying in at the time of the crime. Throughout the novel, Kent includes real correspondence between government offices and officials regarding the case. And while the story itself is fictionalized, Kent did extensive research and read many articles and stories that gave her a sense of what these people were like and how they related to each other. I think what struck me most about this story was how people make up their minds about you before they even meet you, and just how much time and effort is sometimes needed to undo that damage.
My Verdict: This is a pretty fascinating story, and an ambitious one for a debut author, but Kent pulls it all of fairly well. The story is interesting, almost never boring, the setting is fascinating, and the characters are sympathetic and relateable enough to where the story doesn't just end up feeling like an historical account of something that happened too far away and too long ago for us to care. And at some moments, the language is absolutely beautiful. Historical fiction lovers will absolutely adore this book.
Favorite Moment: When Agnes helps deliver a baby during a difficult labor, to the shock and surprise to almost the entire community.
Favorite Character: Marget is an incredibly strong and constant wife and mother who is fighting her own battle to stay alive. She is understandably wary of Agnes when she first arrives, but the two of them soon come to a sort of understanding bordering on mutual respect.
Recommended Reading: This is perhaps an odd choice, but I recommend Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment. The two books don't have a whole lot in common, but they do both tell of how someone gets to a place where they believe murder is an option.