Hannah Kent’s debut novel Burial Rites (2013), set in Iceland in the 1800s, tells the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, a servant woman who is sentenced to death on suspicion of murder. Burial Rites sat on my shelf for quite a long time before I picked it up because of the number of good reviews I read and recommendations I’ve had. I’m not usually drawn to historical fiction, so I was pleasantly surprised by how good Burial Rites is.
The novel follows Agnes through the winter, as she lives with a servant family who are charged with housing her until her death. She is also visited by Tóti, a young assistant reverend, who is tasked with preparing her spiritually for her death. Throughout the novel, Kent slowly reveals Agnes’ past as she tells Tóti her history and the two form a strong bond. The reader slowly learns the events of Agnes’ life leading up to how she came to be accused of murder. This keeps the suspense going and I found that I really couldn’t put the novel down once I’d started.
The novel is partially based in reality, which makes it a really interesting read. In fact, Kent started it as a historical inquiry when she was studying abroad in Iceland. Using the historical record in which Agnes’ death is documented, Kent started to piece together the story, enhancing it with fictional details until it eventually became a novel.
Kent’s writing style is very lyrical, and it was an easy but thoroughly interesting and, at times, a moving read. For me, the ending fell a little flat as it felt rushed, but overall it was a really great read and I definitely recommend it, even if historical fiction is not your usual go-to genre.
About the reviewer
Hannah Westwood is a final year English & American Studies student at the University of Leicester. She likes reading feminist and sci-fi novels and her favourite author is Terry Pratchett.