Burial Rites

Burial Rites

by Hannah Kent


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*Soon to be a major motion picture starring Jennifer Lawrence*

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?

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780316243926
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Publication date: 04/01/2014
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 61,624
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Hannah Kent was born in Adelaide in 1985. As a teenager she travelled to Iceland on a Rotary Exchange, where she first heard the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir. Hannah is the co-founder and deputy editor of Australian literary journal Kill Your Darlings, and is completing her PhD at Flinders University. In 2011 she won the inaugural Writing Australia Unpublished Manuscript Award. BURIAL RITES is her first novel.


A Conversation with Hannah Kent, Author of Burial Rites

Burial Rites is based on the true story of an Icelandic woman convicted of murder. When did you first hear about Agnes Magnúsdóttir?

I first heard about Agnes Magnúsdóttir ten years ago, when I was living in Iceland as a seventeen-year-old exchange student. The first few months of my stay there had been quite difficult. I was living in a small Icelandic town where I felt conspicuous as a foreignor, yet also socially isolated. I didn't speak any Icelandic at that stage, it was winter, and the days were gripped by darkness for up to twenty hours at a time. It was during this early period of loneliness that I happened to drive through a very striking place called Vatnsdalur, a valley covered in hundreds of small hills. When I asked my travelling companions if the area was significant for any reason, they told me that it had been the site of the last executions in Iceland, which had taken place well over 150 years ago. Immediately curious, I asked them what had happened, and was told that a young man and woman had been led out to the hills and beheaded by broad axe for their role in the brutal murder of two sleeping men. It seemed like a dark and tragic tale, yet there was something that deeply intrigued me about the woman they mentioned: a 34 year-old servant woman called Agnes. For some strange reason I felt a kinship with her. Possibly I saw a fragment of my own experience of loneliness and social isolation in her story then, for it resonated with me immediately. I thought of her frequently during the rest of my exchange (which ended up being absolutely wonderful), and in the years that followed I realised I had many burning questions about the murders and about Agnes' role in them. I wanted to know what circumstances contributed to such a sorrowful fate, and what sort of woman she had been.

What compelled you to eventually write a novel about her?

While I had been immediately curious about Agnes on first hearing about the executions, it was some years before I decided to write a novel based on her story. In an early attempt to answer the persistent questions I had about the murders and execution, I did a little light research and began translating and reading a few articles about the case. While I soon discovered more details about the crime, something about the records troubled me: in many accounts of the murders Agnes was either portrayed as an unequivocally evil woman, or was hardly mentioned at all. Where I looked for her character, I found only a monstrous stereotype. My decision to write about Agnes was triggered by a longing to find the real woman behind the grotesque caricature of a black-hearted manipulator. It was never a desire to re-open the case in the hope that she was actually innocent. I wanted to instead discover something of her life story, and in doing so explore her ambiguity and complexity.

What kind of research was needed to accurately portray nineteenth-century Iceland?

More than I could ever have anticipated. I read a huge amount of material - everything I could get my hands on - to become familiar with what life was like in nineteenth-century Iceland. Not only did I study history books, but I also read diaries by foreign travellers to the country, fiction by people such as Halldór Laxness, many scholarly articles with very dry titles like 'Infant Mortality in Nordic Countries, 1780-1930', song lyrics, recipes, old newspapers - if it was about Iceland, I read it. It was an enjoyable process, but a slow one: most sources required translation before I could even gauge their usefulness. In the end, the most difficult things to research were aspects of mundane domestic life. What did people eat? Did they celebrate birthdays? If so, how? What were their shoes made out of? Did the men shave or grow beards? Did everyone use chamber pots and how heavy would one be? These are the things a historical novelist needs to know, sometimes even more so than the political climate or social customs, although these things are important too.

I also spent six weeks researching in Iceland's national archives and libraries, where I was able to study censuses, ministerial records and 'soul registers', and where I learned most of the facts of Agnes's life. I also spent some time visiting the places where the novel is set. It was a very intense, very rewarding process, and as I researched the times that Agnes lived in, I found myself drafting scenarios and scenes that were suggested to me by my reading. Some of this imaginative speculation later mirrored the actual facts of her life with eerie resemblance. Overall, it took me about two years of full-time research and study before I felt confident enough in my knowledge of the events and that time in Iceland's history to begin writing.

Is the novel largely fact, or is a significant portion direct from your imagination?

The relationship between fact and fiction is a close and complicated one in Burial Rites. When I decided to write a novel about Agnes Magnúsdóttir and the historical events surrounding Iceland's last execution, I promised myself that I would honour every fact that could be corroborated. In other words, I decided to keep my imagination on a leash, only giving it free reign when the facts contradicted one another, or were nowhere to be found. That said, everything in the novel is somehow anchored to my research, even if it's largely fictional. I never discovered what exactly Agnes was doing from the age of 6 to 16 for instance (the records for those 10 years were destroyed), but my wider research into the lives and experiences of other pauper and illegitimate children informed my speculation. Every creative decision, every fictional aspect of the novel can be directly linked to something I encountered in my reading.

Interestingly, the stranger elements of Agnes's story are the parts that I have not fictionalised. For instance, several characters have important dreams which are discussed in the novel, and form part of the narrative. All of these dreams were taken from several local histories and accounts of the murder - none were made up. It's astonishing what some people think to write down, and what else is neglected. In many ways I think of the novel as a speculative biography. It's only a suggestion of how things might have been, but it is informed conjecture.

The Icelandic landscape has a large presence in the novel. What role does it play, and what impressions has it left on you?

It would be impossible to write an Icelandic story without including the country's landscape. I've never been anywhere else in the world where the natural world is made even more beautiful through its inherent hostility. The weather, the mountains, the northern sky - it all has a presence that cannot be ignored or shut out as it can be in other places. The very light of the place commands your attention. Living there, you find your days shaped by the natural world in ways that it does not in other countries, whether it's the midnight sun preventing you from sleeping with its warm blush coming through your curtains, or a howling gale shutting you inside for days on end. I think the lack of trees contributes to this unusually strong presence of the land and weather. The view is often unobscured, and when you stand in that landscape, amongst the valleys and mountains and fjords, you realise that you too are visible for miles. It creates a mixed yet exhilarating feeling of vulnerability and awe.

When I researched Burial Rites I often came across references to the landscape in letters and diary entries. People would agree to meet at a certain time or place 'weather permitting'. It was a constant phrase, and I slowly realised the extent to which people's lives were governed not only by the seasons, but by day-to-day rainfall, winds, northern lights. I wanted to make sure I captured the force of the Icelandic landscape in Burial Rites, whilst also honouring its splendour.

How do Icelanders feel about this book?

I have had only support from Icelanders so far, which is wonderfully assuring. From the archivists, librarians and locals who assisted me in my research, to those who have got in touch with me since the book has been released, everyone has so far been enthusiastic about my novel. Many are simply curious to know why a young Australian chose to write about events so far away in time and place from her own experiences. No doubt that there will be a number of Icelanders who disagree with the way in which I've portrayed characters (some may be descendants of the historical people they're based on afterall), but I can accept that. I haven't set out to offend anyone, or to subvert a well-known story for the sake of controversy. I hope they see this book as the 'dark love letter to Iceland' I intend it to be.

Who have you discovered lately?

I am completely in awe of Eleanor Catton. I read her debut novel The Rehearsal earlier this year, and was stunned by its originality and ambition. She's young, but the quality of her prose suggests an extraordinarily mature intellect: it is staggeringly good. I'm currently reading her second novel, the Man Booker longlisted The Luminaries, and am once again taking huge pleasure in Catton's use of language and her artful command of structure. I've also been reading the Patrick Melrose quintet by Edward St. Aubyn, and have been recommending the series to anyone who will listen. Acerbic, horrifying and filled with darkly funny observations, St. Aubyn's books are filled with characters so vile, so hideously malformed by their own self-interest and self-righteousness, that you cannot possibly put them down. As soon as I finish the final novel I have plans to read them all over again.

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Burial Rites: A Novel 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 44 reviews.
cloggiedownunder More than 1 year ago
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 Agnes Magnusdottir, beheaded by axe in 1829 for her role in the murder of two sleeping men. Eventually Kent produced a novel in which she aimed to show another side to this condemned woman. This novel won the Writing Australia Unpublished Manuscript Award, and deservedly so. Kent takes the many facts she has uncovered in her extensive research and, along with fictional likelihoods,weaves them into a fascinating tale of love, cruelty, passion and betrayal. Kent fills out the real and fictional characters, giving them a depth that cannot be gleaned from recorded data. A great wealth of interesting facts about early 19th century Iceland is incorporated into the story, giving it a wonderful authenticity. With sparkling prose, Kent evokes both the feel of northern Iceland and emotions of her characters. Gems like “I staggered in the light of the world and took deep gulps of fresh sea air. It was late in the day: the wet mouth of the afternoon was full on my face. My soul blossomed in that brief moment….” and “I had no friends. I didn’t understand the landscape. Only the outlying tongues of rock scarred the perfect kiss of sea and sky – there was no one and nothing else. There was nowhere else to go.” abound. Kent’s mentor for this masterpiece was, very appropriately, Geraldine Brooks: this genre is right up her alley. This is a powerful and moving first novel, and readers will eagerly await Hannah Kent’s next work. 
nfmgirl More than 1 year ago
The year is 1828 and Agnes Magnusdottir, along with two others, has been condemned to die by beheading for the murders of two men. But the government has spent too much money on the axe to be used for the beheadings, and they can't afford the upkeep of the prisoners until their execution. So Agnes is sent from the prison to the home of Jon Jonsson of Kornsa, the District Officer of Vatnsdalur, and his wife Margret. They are ordered, as part of his duty as District Officer, to take charge of Agnes until the date of her execution. The family is not happy about these orders, but feel they have no choice but to perform their duty. This novel is a fictional story based on actual events. As the author explains in her Author's Notes: "Agnes Magnusdottir was the last person to be executed in Iceland, convicted for her role in the murders of Natan Ketilsson and Petur Jonsson on the night between the 13th and 14th of March 1828, at Illugastadir, on the Vatnsnes Peninsula, North Iceland." Many of the events int he book are drawn from local history and lore. Little by little, the life of Agnes is laid bare to the reader, and as heartbreaking as it is, you realize that it is nothing uncommon. This is the life of orphans and paupers. However this novel is uncommon. It's a modest story, slowly pulling you in, absorbing you bit by bit. It is heart-wrenching at moments, and you yearn for Agnes to find some relief from her fear, and to find love and affection. Agnes is returned to Kornsa, where she had a family for awhile in her childhood, and gains a family again before her death. She was fostered as a young girl by Inga and Bjorn until Inga died. Agnes requests as her spiritual attendant Assistant Reverend Thorvardur Jonsson, otherwise known as Toti. He is unclear why Agnes has requested him, and is uncomfortable with the assignment. He is still in training, and nervous about attending to a murderess. But he, like the Kornsa family, performs his duty as ordered. Toti and Agnes form a bond as he permits her to pour out her soul and rehash her past. One of my few complaints is that I would have liked to have seen more development in the relationships between Agnes and the family members. I would have liked to have felt warmth between them growing, and her opening up to them. Her relationship with them remained rather stilted. My final word: This was one of those gentle reads, at times so entrancing it is almost hypnotic, like being rocked to sleep. Affective and sensitive, it moved me and it is beautifully lyrical. I would consider this novel to be rare and extraordinary, and it will carry you along to the bitter end, if you allow it, with tears streaming down your face as you take those final steps. But you aren't alone. Agnes is with you.
lovelybookshelf More than 1 year ago
Burial Rites is based on the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last person execution in Iceland. From the very first pages of the book, Agnes never claims innocence or guilt. We can tell there's more to her story, but are left unsure... is she actually guilty? Is she innocent? Maybe it's more complicated than that, somewhere in between. Or is Agnes simply mourning that one decision will forever define her? We just can't tell, and that makes for a gripping read. Much of the narrative is in third person; we are spectators. But Agnes's story is revealed to us through her eyes. Everything Agnes hears, sees, and feels is keenly felt. Hannah Kent's writing is phenomenal in this way. And the last thirteen pages or so were altogether intense, utterly terrifying, sickening, and beautifully handled. My stomach was in knots! And you know, I knew what was going to happen at the end of this book. Yet I turned page after page, feeling like maybe, just maybe, it would end differently. I held on to that irrational sliver of hope all the way to the end. Hannah Kent's powerful novel swept me away had me fully invested in the main character. Incredible read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Based on a historical incident, this novel is riviting. An unusual setting, filled with facts about the lifestyle of the 1830's in Iceland, and fascinating male and female characters make this story a must real for lovers of great historical fiction or just great stories. Another great historical novel on the Nook is "The Partisan" by William Jarvis. This novel is also based on a true villian during World War II. Both are excellent. Both deserve A+++++++
AngieJG More than 1 year ago
I was not sure if I would like this book. It sounded a bit depressing, and indeed it was. But it was so well-written, and such an interesting story, that I really liked it. Amazing the stories that history holds. I never heard of this case, nor thought much about Iceland. Now I am inspired to look further into the case and learn more about the country and history. Strongly recommended.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The author does an excellent job of taking the reader into the period as well as the hearts and minds of the characters. Her ability to portray their emotional development throughout the story progression is especially impressive as she is working from actual events -- but also shows herself an empathetic author. Looking forward to this author's next work. Historical fiction is my favorite genre.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I couldn't put this book down, great book for book club discussions.
merobertsonhoon More than 1 year ago
As a mystery writer myself I found Burial Rites to be quite riveting. It certainly had me thinking twice about my impending trip to Iceland next year.
Hubbell More than 1 year ago
Great read. Names get confusing but such a good story. Sad and very interesting. Great insight as to the injustice of long ago times ....... Especially for women. Would be a great movie!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A really well-written, engrossing novel. 'Burial Rites' is a thrilling read, and Kent's writing brings Iceland to life. The writing is sparse, much like the land and people it depicts, and completely immerses the reader in the landscape and plot. This heartbreaking story is one of 2013's best novels ... and reads likone written by an author much more along in years than Kent actually is. She writes with confidence, care and reverence for her characters.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It took about 10pages for me to get the rythm of Ms Kents style, but once i did i couldn't put it down.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Reading this book give the chills,glue to it can not let go. It's getting by page by page?
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
CoolLibrarian More than 1 year ago
The more I read the harder it became to put this book down. I was drawn in deeper and deeper, not wanting to reach the inevitable end.  I was hoping , at every turn of the page, the end would be different than my heart  felt.
Sandy5 More than 1 year ago
I was surprised how much I liked listening to this novel. It felt dark and as the story continued, I started to have feelings for the woman who was just waiting for her sentence to be carried out. The farmer’s wife was not too happy to have this prisoner in her house but she had no choice. They choose their house and now, they had to deal with it. Agnes was not supposed to be there long, for she was sentenced to death for her crime. When they brought Agnes, I loved the way the wife took charge over the situation. She was not having this prisoner contaminate her house and the guards upset her household. She seemed strong and determined, as she looked over the prisoner that was before her. As the story progressed, the characters seemed to transform. We hear the truth and I began to have a change of heart. Did Agnes really commit the crime, that they said she did? That’s the question that really needs to be answered here. I liked the darkness of the novel and how the story progressed. She was a prisoner yet it there were times, I couldn’t see it and then, we had to remember what they said happened. There was something about how the story was written, for when I listened to it, the words just flowed out and the images were right beside them. I really wished that I would have read this novel instead of listened to it as I had a hard time with the audio. I thought the main character was flirty. Why? I thought the narrator’s voice had an accent which translated to the main character and in this dark novel, it didn’t sit well with me considering her situation. It’s just me, but this effected how I felt emotionally towards the characters too. I would like to reread this novel in the future to hopefully get more connected with the characters. A great story! 4.5 stars
NCKATHYB More than 1 year ago
Seemingly very authentic capture of life in 18th Century rural Iceland. I could not only see it, but feel and smell it too. I could also feel Agnes's emotions as if I were living it myself. I enjoyed reading it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Unless you are prepared for a sensitive , intelligent novel written by an author who is not only a master of her craft but also gifted with an ability to delve into the human psyche . A haunting story .
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
If I could see through the tears, perhaps I could write a review.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This was an incredibly touching story that most people could relate to unless they were immature.
LisaDunckley More than 1 year ago
A lyrically written fictionalized telling of the story of the last person executed in Iceland, in 1830. Author Hannah Kent did quite a bit of research on this and in her words, attempted an “ambiguous portrayal” of convicted murderess Agnes Magnusdottir. Hannah states she became intrigued with this tale and much of the available published works (none of which seem to be published in English, lol) seemed to contradict each other with their conclusions. Her many years' worth of research into church records, censuses, local histories and publications, and interviews with descendants of main characters enabled her to publish what she felt to be the most probable actual version of this sad and compelling tale. The book mixes translations from actual letters and official documents into the fictionalized parts that Hannah's research supports, and starts with Agnes, who has been condemned to die for some time now, being sent to a family for them to hold until her execution. They are horrified at having to take a murderess into their very home, yet they need another pair of hands as the mother is not well. Agnes is allowed to speak to a priest in order to learn repentence and has selected the young Toti who helped her once as a girl. As he (and we) learn what happened through Agnes' words and Toti's own investigations, the story unfolds.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
KateUnger More than 1 year ago
I would never have picked up Burial Rites if it hadn’t been a book club selection. I don’t usually gravitate towards historical fiction. But I am so glad I read this book because I really enjoyed it. In 19th century Iceland, three people stand trial and are convicted of murder. Their punishment is to be death by hanging. There isn’t a prison system to house them until their execution can be arranged, so they are boarded with the families of some rural agents of the government. Iceland is under Danish rule at the time (which was a surprise to me). Agnes Magnusdottir is placed with a family in the very cottage where she had once lived. The family, especially the wife and the younger daughter, were none too pleased to have her there. Margret is sure she will murder her daughters in her sleep. I enjoyed learning how Agnes grows on the family. The slow build relationships in this book were delightful. I was sympathetic to Agnes right away. I don’t even know why exactly. The story is told in alternating first person accounts of Agnes’ current condition along with memories of her past (including the night of the murders) and some letters and official government documents woven throughout. The Reverend Toti is also featured in this story. Agnes requests him to be her pre-death counsel, and she opens up to him in a way she does not do with anyone else. This allows the reader to learn the horrors and truths of Agnes’ past. This story was just fascinating to me. There are some gruesome parts, and I was naively hoping for a happy ending. The description states what happens to Agnes, but I never actually read it since this was a book club pick. Oh well. I still thoroughly enjoyed this book. http://opinionatedbooklover.com/review-burial-rites-hannah-kent/
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