Review: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Author: Hannah Kent 
Title: Burial Rites 
Format/Source: eBook/Library
Published: September 2013
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Length: 314 pages
Genre: Literary fiction
Why I Read: Swayed solely by the reviews
Read If You’re: Looking for something atmospheric, a fan of The Enchanted or historical fiction
Quote: “Did she look at my scrunched face, hoping I would die, or did she silently urge me to stick to life like a burr?” (34%)
Rating:  ★★★★½ [ratings guide]
GoodReads IndieBound Chapters | Amazon

Here is another book that the blogosphere convinced me to try. I read many glowing reviews of Burial Rites before I made up my mind. The premise did not intrigue me, but after reading  enough about the prose I decided it might be worth my time. Thank goodness I was finally swayed! My younger self would be amazed that I enjoyed this novel. A book with no fantastic or mysterious elements?! I am actually still surprised to find I can love stories like this, stories that fall solidly into the realm of literary fiction. I’m growing up ;-; (which is not a jab at other genres – I mean that when I was younger I thought books about everyday lives and characters could only be dull…now I know better.)

I loved the atmosphere Kent conjures through her prose. For a long time, that was the only sentence in this paragraph. I’ve struggled to come up with any comment that sufficiently describes what I’d like to say about Kent’s writing. I think it’s best for me to just leave you with one of my favourite passages. You really need to read a few pages to get a proper sense of the mood (and the novel is split between first and third person, so this is just a piece of it), but I hope this gives you an idea: 

I remain quiet. I am determined to close myself to the world, to tighten my heart and hold what has not yet been stolen from me. I cannot let myself slip away. I will hold what I am inside, and keep my hands tight around all the things I have seen and heard, and felt. The poems composed as I washed and scythed and cooked until my hands were raw. The sagas I know by heart. I am sinking all I have left and going underwater. If I speak, it will be in bubbles of air. They will not be able to keep my words for themselves. They will see the whore, the madwoman, the murderess, the female dripping blood into the grass and laughing with her mouth choked with dirt. They will say “Agnes” and see the spider, the witch caught in the webbing of her own fateful weaving. They might see the lamb circle by ravens, bleating for a lost mother. But they will not see me. I will not be there. (10%).

I also enjoyed reading about the characters (mostly). Agnes has a captivating voice, and I liked reading about Margret, Laura, and Steina. The young priest I also found much more interesting than the one from The Enchanted, perhaps because he plays a more integral role. I didn’t like any of the characters from Agnes’ past who were connected to the murder, though I don’t think they’re meant to be likeable. Poor Agnes, there’s something really not quite right about her and Natan’s relationship. I felt uncomfortable whenever her love for him became noticeable. He’s not a great person in any way, but she loves him. Although I didn’t like Natan, I liked how Kent gives the readers bits and pieces of his character throughout the book, which eventually creates a full view of him. The back story behind the murders is less exciting than one might expect, but it’s still interesting to read due to Kent’s prose. Even though every reader knows how the story will end, the ending may still hit you like the swift fall of an axe. I hadn’t thought I was emotionally invested in the story until the last few pages broke my heart.

I mentioned The Enchanted above. When I started Burial Rites, I thought of the similarities between the two novels. Both describe people condemned to die and those who try to help them, and both have a similar prose style that invokes a specific mood. Though The Enchanted is more dark and discomforting, the feeling was the same for me. If I was still in university, I’d be looking for a way to write an essay comparing the two! Certainly if you enjoyed one, I think you will enjoy the other.

I was surprised when I found out Kent is a relatively young author and not Icelandic. I’m fascinated by the novel’s basis in reality. The incorporation of real documents (letters between officials involved in the case) works seamlessly. I didn’t realize at first that they were real documents! One of the letters inquires about what to do afterwards with the axe especially commissioned for the executions (27%). I love that Kent came up with a more sympathetic story about Agnes than what is more commonly ‘known’. It’s always interesting to remember when looking back in history that we can only have some of the facts, if any, and that there can be many ways to interpret the past. I’d like to know what scholars think of Kent’s interpretation and how plausible it is (not that it really matters, though).

I read in an interview Kent’s next book will be set in a similar time period, in County Kerry, Ireland. I spent some weeks there last summer – it’s an amazingly beautiful place where you can feel the history in the landscape. I’m excited to see what sort of tale Kent comes up with.

God has had His chance to free me, and for reasons know to Him alone, He has pinned me to ill fortune, and although I have struggled, I am run through and through with disaster; I am knifed to the hilt with fate. (18%)

The Bottom Line: I wouldn’t call myself a ‘fan of historical fiction’, but I’m sure such fans will love Burial Rites. Even if the plot doesn’t intrigue you, please give this book a go if you love a moody atmosphere, striking prose and engaging characters.

Elsewhere: