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Review: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Burial Rites American
Burial Rites American
Burial Rites American


Highlights: How the relationship between Agnes & Margret changes through the novel.
Synopsis: Burial Rites is Hannah Kent's fictional telling of convicted murderess Agnes Magnúsdόttir's final months before her public execution.
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The book deals with a topic that most Americans will never have heard of and may encourage them to do additional research.


Difficult names and the anti-climactic reveal of the truth.

Posted February 17, 2014 by

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Hannah Kent, author of Burial Rites, was just a teenager when she traveled to Iceland as part of a Rotary Exchange program. While there, she heard the legendary tale of Agnes Magnúsdόttir, the last woman publicly executed in Iceland. Kent has now crafted a novel about Agnes’ final months. Although Burial Rites has some problems, the book does a respectable job of exploring the mental anguish a convicted felon must feel knowing her life is soon to be over.


On March 14, 1828, farm owner Natan Ketilsson and his guest Petúr Jόnsson were found dead in the smoldering ruins of Natan’s house. The fire was set to cover a more brutal crime: the deaths of the two men by stabbing. Natan’s female servants, Agnes and Sigga, and a boy from the neighboring farm, Fridrik, were accused of the murders. In January 1830, Agnes and Fridrik were beheaded for the crimes while Sigga’s sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. In her early 30s at the time of the slayings, Agnes, the oldest of the three accused, was widely considered to be Natan’s lover and was believed to be the mastermind behind the gruesome killings. For her role in the murders, Agnes was called a villainous witch, and her supposed brutality passed into legend. In Burial Rites, Kent attempts to humanize Agnes as a misunderstood woman who was misled and abused.


Kent begins the novel with Agnes being placed with District Officer Jόn Jόnsson and his family on their farm at Kornsá, where she will live out her time before execution. Jόn, his wife Margrét, and their daughters Lauga and Steina resent having a convicted murderess in their home, but as an officer of the law, Jόn has little choice in the matter.

Once Agnes arrives, the family is surprised by how helpful she is. She is obedient, quiet, and respectful. Over the months she lives with them, they begin, quite slowly, to develop an attachment to her, though the knowledge that she helped kill two men while they slept is never far from their thoughts. Yet their opinion of Agnes changes, especially Margrét’s. When she first learns that Agnes will live with them, Margret exclaims,

I hope they will leave some men behind, to make sure she doesn’t kill us in our sleep…I do not like to share my home with the Devil’s children.

Later, the two women bond over the fact that neither of them will live much longer. As Agnes points out, they are “two dying women,” for Agnes will die at the executioner’s block while Margrét will succumb to ill-health.

During the time Agnes stays with the family, she is allowed spiritual counsel. She selects Assistant Reverend Thorvardur Jόnsson, Tόti for short, to minister to her as she wrestles with her impending death. Tόti does not understand why Agnes selects him, but it is because of a kindness he once showed her, a kindness he does not even remember.

For the duration of the book, the author flits back and forth between current happenings and Agnes’ past, including the events that led to the murders. It is to Margrét and later to Tόti that Agnes eventually confesses the truth, a rather anti-climatic truth considering the length of time the reader spends getting to that point.


Burial Rites has several issues, but the main one for most American readers will be the Icelandic names. Trying to read names and places in a language so foreign to one’s own can prove daunting. Therefore, readers must decide early that they will either attempt to use the author’s vowel cheat sheet at the beginning of the book, or resign themselves to not understanding the pronunciation of the names. One item of value in the author’s note about Icelandic names is that people added “son” or “dόttir” (daughter) to their father’s first name to form their own last names. So, Agnes is the daughter of Magnús, or Magnúsdόttir, and although there are plenty of characters with Jόnsson as their last name, none of them are related. Tracing genealogy in Iceland must be a challenge!

Another annoyance is Tόti’s early lack of confidence and his absence during the middle section of the work. In the beginning, Tόti wonders whether he is even up to the challenge of ministering to a condemned woman. He prays for guidance about how to help her.

I confess to fear. I do not know what to say to her. I do not feel at ease, Lord. Please guard my heart against the…the horror this woman inspires in me.

Tόti makes a few more half-hearted visits to Agnes, but at one point, he succumbs to illness and must abandon his visits just when Agnes needs him most. In the end, Tόti is by her side, which somewhat lets him off the hook for his ineffective counsel and abandonment.

What Burial Rites does well is getting inside the mind of a condemned woman. In the beginning of the book, Agnes is treated inhumanly by her jailers. Her thoughts during this time show her anger and resentment about her lot in life.

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…They will see the whore, the madwoman, the murderess…But they will not see me. I will not be there.

Yet, after the kindness she is shown at Kornsá, Agnes reciprocates in thought and deed. By the novel’s end, she no longer wants to die, but she is not bitter towards those who must end her life. The lesson, if one is to be learned, is that people respond in kind to how they are treated. For Agnes, the generosity comes too late to save her life.


Burial Rites is Hannah Kent’s debut novel. It made it onto the shortlist for the Guardian First Book Award, and has now been nominated for the Stella Prize, Australia’s all-female literary award. While the book does have some glitches, it shows a great deal of promise for such a young author. Although readers know from the start how the story will end, following the characters as each must accept the hand that life has dealt will keep the reader going during the book’s darkest times. Obviously, Burial Rites does not end well, but that does not mean it is not worth the read.

Mollie Smith Waters

Mollie Smith Waters teaches American literature, theater, and speech at a small community college in rural Alabama. Her hobbies include reading, writing, traveling, and walking.


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