In The Spotlight: Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites

SpotlightHello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Fictional accounts of real murder cases can do a lot more than simply tell the events of record. When they’re done well, such accounts can shed light on the people involved. And they can offer ideas about what might have motivated a crime. Such stories can be difficult to do well. It’s not easy to strike a balance between telling a good story and being faithful to the actual events. Let’s take a look at such a novel today, and turn the spotlight on Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites.

This novel is the fictional retelling of the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, who was one of the last people to be executed for murder in Iceland. The execution took place in early 1830, but the story begins in 1828, when two farmers, Natan Ketilsson and Pétur Jónsson, are murdered, allegedly by Agnes Magnúsdóttir, Friðrik Sigurðsson, and Sigrídur ‘Sigga’ Gudmondsdóttir. The three suspects are arrested and imprisoned, and deliberations are held as to what their fates will be.

After hearing testimony, it’s determined that all three suspects are guilty and will be executed. Agnes is sent to Kornsá, to live with District Officer Jón Jónsson, his wife, Margrét, and their two daughters, Steina and Lauga. The arrangement will, so officials think, benefit everyone. The family gets the benefit of Agnes’ work on the farm. They’ll also be compensated financially. Agnes will benefit from living with an ‘upstanding, Christian’ family during her last weeks and months. And the government will not have the responsibility for feeding and housing Agnes.

The family isn’t at all happy about having a condemned murderer under their roof. But they don’t have very much choice in the matter. So, they make room for Agnes. At first, they’re very wary, and for the most part, keep their distance. But little by little, Steina and, later, Margrét, get to know Agnes just a little. And as they do, they get a much more complex portrait of her than they had imagined.

In the meantime, Agnes has requested that Assistant Reverand Thorvardur ‘Tóti’ Jónsson provide spiritual counseling to her. He’s not sure at first why she chose him. But it soon comes out that they once met briefly, and she thought him a kind person. Little by little Agnes shares her story both with Tóti and with Margrét. As she does, we learn her history, as well as that of the other two people accused. And that history explains how these three people got involved with the victims, and why they killed them.

This is a fictional account of a real case. So, there is no doubt, even from the beginning, of who the killers are. This isn’t a speculative novel where the author suggests another hypothesis. Rather, Kent delves into the characters, and suggests what their motives were and how it was that these people ended up the way they did. Because it’s the story of a real set of murders and their investigation, Kent also includes copies of letters, notices, and other authentic information.

The story takes place in 1829/1830 Iceland, and that time and place are clearly conveyed. Readers learn a great deal about the lives of ‘regular’ people in north Iceland in those days. Lifestyles, social structures, socioeconomic issues, and other aspects of culture are portrayed, as is the area’s set of traditions. Kent doesn’t gloss over the harshness of average people’s lives at that time, so some of the story is quite gritty. There is violence, too. But (at least for me) the violence is not out of proportion to the story.

That historical context plays a major role in the way the case is prosecuted and in the way the prisoners are treated, especially Agnes. As it is, she’s had a difficult life. She was illegitimate, with no real home of her own, and no parents in her life. She’s a simple farm maid, rather low on the social pecking order, and that’s made worse by the fact of her ‘low’ birth. The sexist nature of the culture of the day has also put her on a lower social rung because she’s a woman. She’s regarded as the ‘mastermind’ behind the killings, which makes people shun her even more.

And yet, she is perceptive and intelligent, and has learned a great deal about herbal remedies and other natural healing solutions. She has a great deal of grace and dignity, which doesn’t always serve her well, especially when she’s dealing with people who would prefer her to cower. And some people are a little wary of her intelligence. It all serves to make her rather an enigmatic character. Still, since part of the story is told from her perspective (first person), we learn a lot about what she’s thinking. She feels things, as it turns out, much more deeply than most people believe.

Other parts of the story are told in third person, from Margrét’s, Tóti’s, Steina and Lauga’s points of view. Readers who prefer only one point of view, and all in past tense, will notice this. That said, it’s not a difficult matter to keep track of whose perspective is being shared at any time.

A note is also in order about the language of the novel. It takes places in Iceland, so there are several Icelandic terms and names used. There is a pronunciation guide at the beginning of my edition of the story, and Kent uses context to lend meaning to words that readers might not know.

Burial Rites offers an in-depth and thoughtful examination of one murder case, and of the people most closely involved in it. Kent uses documents and other information from the times to tell the personal stories of the various characters, and places those stories in the historical and geographic contexts in which they actually took place. But what’s your view? Have you read Burial Rites? If you have, what elements do you see in it?


Coming Up On In The Spotlight


Monday, 16 January/Tuesday, 17 January – An Easy Thing – Paco Ignacio Taibo II

Monday, 23 January/Tuesday, 24 January – What Remains Behind – Dorothy Fowler

Monday, 30 January/Tuesday, 31 January – Murder in Bollywood – Shadaab Amjad Khan


Filed under Burial Rites, Hannah Kent

42 responses to “In The Spotlight: Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites

  1. Tim

    You’ve hooked me! I lived in Iceland (early 80s), and I am a fan of Icelandic crime/mystery writers (Indridason is my favorite among them), but I never knew about this 19th century crime story. I hope my library has a copy. Thanks!

    • I didn’t know you’d lived in Iceland, Tim! Or, if I did know, I’d forgotten. My guess is that you’ll find some of the setting really familiar, then. And, being a historian, I think you find the history aspect interesting, too. If you read this, I hope you’ll enjoy it.

  2. This has been on my to-read list for a while, and sounds absolutely fascinating.

    • It really is, Caron. There’s a really well-developed sense of place, culture, and time. And Kent offers a close look at the characters, too, which to me, adds much to an understanding of what happened. No simple, dry statement of facts here.

  3. Wow! What a spotlight today. Burial Rites sounds fantastic. I love that it’s based on a real case, with actual documents included. Sounds like one I’ll have to add. Thanks, Margot!

    • I don’t think you’ll regret it, Sue. The novel is based on a real case. And, although I’m by no means at all an expert on the topic, it seemed that she stayed close to the facts of the case. At the same time, though, she depicts the people involved as fully human, fleshed-out characters. That makes it much easier to really understand how the murders happened. And it does have a strong sense of place and time. If you do read it, I hope you’ll enjoy it.

  4. I’ve just finished an ARC of her next book, The Good People, which I really liked. Having read your review I’m definitely going to read this one as well.

    • I’m very glad to hear you enjoyed The Good People, WCRN. I’ve heard from a few sources I trust that it’s a fine novel and well worth reading. Since you enjoyed that one, I think you’d like Burial Rites very much, too.

  5. Hi Margot, I found Burial Rites was a very powerful read. Kent does a brilliant job of bringing 19th century Iceland to life; a couple of years after reading it, I can still remember the windows covered in fish skin. This is also one of those novels that defies pigeonholing, winning people’s choice awards as both a literary novel and a crime novel in Australia — though it was definitely marketed more as the former than the latter.

    There’s also a very interesting backstory to this ‘biofiction’ (fiction based on the life of a real person). You/your readers can find out more by Googling “Hannah Kent + Australian Story”.

    • Thanks for the information, Angela – that’s very helpful. And I agree that Kent portrays 19th Century Iceland very effectively. There’s a real sense of place, time and context. And I can see why it’s considered both a literary novel and a crime novel. It really is both. And yes, some of the descriptions do stay with a person…

  6. I really loved Burial Rites…though it’s not exactly a happy read.But I love books which give as realistic as possible an idea of what life was like for ‘ordinary people’ in times gone by.

    • So do I, Bernadette. And that’s one of the things I think Kent does very well here. Most of the characters are ‘regular’ people, and it’s through their eyes and experiences that we follow the action. I think that makes it more powerful. As you say, it’s not happy. But a book doesn’t have to be happy to be a memorable, excellent read.

  7. I adored everything about this book from the bleak setting to the characters but the plot had me devastated

    • The plot is sad, isn’t it, Cleo? It’s an uncompromising story in that way, so I’m not surprised it left you feeling the way it did. As you say, though, the setting and characters are very clearly depicted. I can see why it stayed with you.

  8. N@ncy

    I agree H. Kent wrote an good book about a person who was misunderstood, misjudged and died in the process. I was not thoroughly impressed with her writing. Atmospheric yes, subtle no. The symbolism of the ravens was everywhere and very obvious. I reviewed this book last year on my bookblog. What did you think? Could the symbolism be handeled differently? Thanks for you great review ….

    • Interesting question, Nancy. Certainly the ravens, the bleak weather and so on are very obvious, as you say. As for the writing, I agree with you that it’s quite atmospheric, and Kent places the reader so distinctly in the place and at the time. And, yes, Agnes was misunderstood and misjudged. As to whether it could have been done more subtly, I wonder whether Kent wanted to ‘go for the obvious.’ That sort of writing isn’t for everyone, but I wonder whether she wanted to leave no doubt. Hmmm….lots of ‘food for thought,’ for which thanks. Folks, do check out Nancy’s fine review of Burial Rites, and see what you think.

  9. Intriguing spotlight, Margot. This sounds like a fascinating book. I like that you get to learn a bit about Iceland through the language and such.

    • Thanks, Mason. I felt that way, too, actually – very interested in what the book offered about Iceland’s language, history and so on. I always like it when I feel I’m learning as I read.

  10. This was great, wasn’t it? So original.

  11. Margot, I admit, fictional stories of real crime make me uncomfortable. For instance, I’d never read a novel about Jack the Ripper because I’ve read so much about it in the papers. In this case, however, the Icelandic setting and time period, not to mention the lingo, is tempting me to read “Burial Rites”. Thank you for this engaging review.

    • I know what you mean about fictional stories of true crime, Prashant. Sometimes, they’re not very well done at all. But sometimes, they can be very skillfully written. This one does capture the place, time and setting very effectively. If you read it, I hope you’ll enjoy it.

      • My first thought while reading this review was of the backlash Capote face for his true crime book, which people felt was too real or too fictional or too friendly or too whatever. I wonder if people responded differently because those crimes were much more recent.

        • That’s a really interesting question, GtL! Everyone’s different, of course, but the reviews I’ve read have not been critical of this book for being too fictional or too real. And yet, as you say, In Cold Blood did get a lot of criticism. Interesting comparison.

  12. I also loved this book – she creates the setting superbly and I love her use of language. I have a copy of her new one and can’t wait to read it – one of the most anticipated books of the year for me. 🙂

    • I’m really interested in reading that, too, FictionFan! And I agree with you; Kent does a very effective job of evoking the setting and the context. And as to the language, a lot of people consider this a literary novel as much as it is a crime novel. I’m glad you liked it as well as you did.

  13. I’ve had Burial Rights on my TBR since it was first released but I’ve never felt like picking it up to read. That is, until I read your spotlight post – you’ve really opened my eyes to what this book is about and I now feel like I really want to read this book soon. Thank you for sharing such a great spotlight post.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Hayley. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. And I do recommend Burial Rites. It is an unusual book, and not what you’d call at all light, easy reading. But it evokes time, place, culture and context very effectively. And the story of the killings is told through the depth of several perspectives. I hope you’ll enjoy it when you get to it.

  14. I loved this book. I read as part of the reading in advance of our first trip to Iceland and I thought it really captured the atmosphere of the place. Superb writing too!

  15. I’ve long wondered about this book – it just seemed too dark for me. But it does sound good…

  16. I know next to nothing about Iceland so thanks for the spotlight, Margot. It makes me want to read the book though I am also (like Prashant) a little wary of reading fictionalised accounts of true crimes.

    • I don’t blame you for being a bit wary, Neeru. Some of those accounts aren’t very good. This one, though, really does evoke Iceland very effectively, I think. If you read it, I hope you’ll enjoy it.

  17. tracybham

    I have avoided this book because I thought it might be too dark for me (like Moira), especially knowing that it is base on a true story, but there are so many positive views on this book here (in a sense) I may give it a try someday.

    • If you do try it, Moira, I hope you’ll like it. It is dark in a lot of ways. Still, it’s a fascinating look at Iceland of that time. And some of the characters are fascinating.

  18. Sounds like a fascinating read. It’s a very different place and time than we are use to read and that’s part of my fascination. Together with the accuracy of the reconstruction.
    Thanks so much for sharing.

    • That’s the thing, Jazzfeathers. It’s a really clear and, I think, accurate look at the time and place. And the story of the crime itself is interesting, too. If you read it, I hope you’ll be glad you did.

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