Burial Rites, by Hannah Kent


Five stars, read in September 2014.

It’s been almost a year and a half since I read this book, and I still think about it often, wishing I could find more media that I can feel the same way about. I still don’t know what words to use to describe it . . . Haunting, maybe. Atmospheric. Totally engaging. “Fascinating” is technically apt, but doesn’t do it justice. The best description is that I was swept up in it, invested even though I wouldn’t say Agnes is a character I connected with personally.

This is the (fictionalized) true story of the last woman beheaded in Iceland. The book begins after her arrest, following her as she’s placed with the family of a minor local official to await her execution. It is bleak both in premise and in setting—because you know how it’s going to end, because Agnes is surrounded by people who believe her to be a dangerous murderer, because rural Iceland in the 1800s is a harsh place, starkly beautiful, but unforgiving. A young priest is sent to help Agnes prepare, and though he’s supposed to be bringing her to repentance before the end, he instead becomes absorbed in hearing her tell her story.

I listened to the audiobook, and I would absolutely recommend that method, especially if you don’t know how to read Icelandic names. Not all books lend themselves to audio performance, but in this case the narration is beautifully done—besides which, I would have absolutely butchered those pronunciations in my head. I actually grabbed the print copy a few times so I could see how the Icelandic words were spelled, which was really interesting. I’d probably like to read it in print someday, but I also know I’ll want to listen to the audio again.

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