Friday, September 20, 2013

Julie's Review: Burial Rites

Summary: Kent's debut delves deep into Scandinavian history, not to mention matters of storytelling, guilt, and silence. Based on the true story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the novel is set in rural Iceland in 1829. Agnes is awaiting execution for the murder of her former employer and his friend, not in a prison — there are none in the area — but at a local family's farm. Jón Jónsson, the father, grudgingly accepts this thankless task as part of his responsibility as a regional official, but his wife and daughters' reactions range from silent resentment to outright fear. After settling in to the household, Agnes requests the company of a young priest, to whom she confesses parts of her story, while narrating the full tale only to the reader, who, like the priest, 'provide her with a final audience to her life's lonely narrative.' The multilayered story paints sympathetic and complex portraits of Agnes, the Jónssons, and the young priest, whose motives for helping the convict are complicated. Kent smoothly incorporates her impressive research — for example, she opens many of the chapters with documents that come directly from archival sources — while giving life to these historical figures and suspense to their tales.

Review: Burial Rites is highly recommend by a great many people. I can't say that it was my favorite book of the year, but it definitely a great historical fiction novel where the mystery outshines the history. Agnes Magnusdottir is an interesting and complex person. It is because of the crimes she is accused of committing and eventually put to death for, that you aren't sure if you can trust her. Who is there to verify her story? The other criminals? They aren't going to absolve her, it makes them more guilty. Throughout the book you go back and forth with wondering if her story is the real account. Slowly but surely you begin to believe her and want to believe in her.

Ms. Kent unfolds Agnes' story slowly and methodically. She builds the story up to the only ending there could be for her. It is not only her story that makes you believe her but it's the way she goes about doing her job while staying in Korsna. It is how she develops a trust and frienship with both the Reverend Toti and Margret that also speaks to her character. She is telling her story with emotion which is what made me believe her even more. She's no longer in shock but has resigned herself to the fact that she will die.

Natan Ketilsson was not a nice man. He wasn't evil but he sure did like to use people. He used Fredrik when it was convinient for him. He used Agnes, Sigga and Poet-Rosa as well. He didn't have much use for people other than to heal them. Other than how other people viewed him we never get to know much more about Natan then cursory descriptors. Perhaps that is all that is needed.

I will also say that my opinion of Steina and Lauga changed as well. It goes to show you that people aren't always who you think they are at first glance. They both surprised me. I have to say that perhaps those months that Agnes stayed in Kornsa might be the first time she had a true family.

I have to say that while Iceland might be gorgeous, I have no desire to go there. It seems so desolute and isolated. Granted this story was in the early 1800s and in the country but you don't shake the cold while reading this novel.

While reading the novel, The Scarlet Letter kept popping into my head. Woman wronged, convincted, sentenced to die. It's not an exact parallel but it was close enough to keep nagging at me.

Check out this cool photo essay by the author. I get cold just looking at it.

Final Take: 4/5

This is also the Hashtag Book Clubs book for September. You can find our chats with #BurialRites.

Thanks to Michelle at That's What She Read for my copy. You can also check out her review of Burial Rites.



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