Final Days: Burial Rites Review

“I can turn to that day as though it were a page in a book. It’s written so deeply upon my mind I can almost taste the ink.”

Did she do it?

We’ll never know for sure.

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent is a novel based on the true story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, who was the last woman publicly executed in Iceland back in 1830. She, along with two others, was accused of murder. But it seems there has always been controversy and mystery surrounding these events, especially the last months of Agnes’ life, often culminating in a question of if she could actually be innocent.

Of course, Burial Rites is fiction since we do not know what actually happened in quite a few areas this novel chooses to depict, but from what I can gather Hannah did quite a lot of research into this piece of Icelandic history. Thus I have to imagine there is a lot of truth to what she is saying. Now we know Agnes dies in the end, but the question surrounding her guilt (or innocence) was definitely present throughout the entire story.

I find that when you know the ending of a story, whether its based on historical events or not, it is vital to have something else in the plot to draw readers in. In my opinion, this is very difficult to pull off. Even if the book is not classified as a mystery, I still do not want to know the ending before I get there. Thankfully, I remained hooked throughout Burial Rites.

I do have some criticism for the book, however, since I rarely ever find something I consider perfect. Here, I think the Icelandic names and such took away from my reading and immersion in the story. Did I like the setting? Yes. Do I want to travel to Iceland a little more? Perhaps. But the big issue here is trying to pronounce the names in my head while reading. There is a little guide at the beginning of the book, but it would become way too tiring to consult this guide for almost every word with the special characters and sounds. I, unfortunately, do not have a photographic memory, so it would have been quite difficult to just read the guide once and have everything memorized.

However, I do believe rural Iceland was a great backdrop—it added another level of eeriness and really added to the sombre mood of the novel as a whole. I cannot say if it was accurate to rural Iceland today, much less rural Iceland when the story takes place, but it definitely fit the plot of the novel very well. I think shifts in the backdrop would have compromised the feeling and tone in negative ways.

So overall I think Burial Rites is a decent read. If you are prepared to wade through some difficult to pronounce words, and enjoy reading books about mystery, murder, and history, I would definitely give the occasionally poetic Burial Rites by Hannah Kent a try. When you do finish, tell me: do you think Agnes was guilty or innocent? Is the book telling the truth? What about other historical accounts of the last months of her life?


Title: Burial Rites

Author: Hannah Kent

Publisher: Little, Brown and Company

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