Reviews for Burial Rites

Booklist Reviews 2013 July #1
*Starred Review* It is March 1829, and Agnes Magnúsdóttir has been sentenced to be beheaded for murdering her employer. Due to the cost of keeping her imprisoned, she is sent to the farm of district commissioner Jon Jonsson, where he lives with his wife and two daughters, until her execution. She arrives at the farm filthy, bruised, and bleeding due to the cruelty with which she has been treated during her imprisonment. The mistress of the farm immediately puts her to work scything the harvest, churning butter, and making sausages, while a young priest visits with her to prepare her soul for death. It is from their conversations that Agnes' story becomes known: abandonment by her mother condemns her to life as a pauper subject to the behest of her many employers, and her intelligence only makes her more of a target. Kent's debut novel, she says, is my dark love letter to Iceland, and rarely has a country's starkness and extreme weather been rendered so exquisitely. The harshness of the landscape and the lifestyle of nineteenth-century Iceland, with its dank turf houses and meager food supply, is as finely detailed as the heartbreak and tragedy of Agnes' life, based on the true story of the last woman executed there. Haunting reading from a bright new talent. Copyright 2013 Booklist Reviews.

BookPage Reviews 2013 September
An Icelandic tale of guilt and truth

Iceland might be a swinging place now, but it wasn’t so in the 1820s. People lived on farmsteads that only survived through endless toil. Everything was filthy; the country was chilly even in summer; and society was ruled by a joyless, punitive piety. The death penalty consisted of being separated from your head via order of His Majesty in Denmark. Such is the setting for Australian writer Hannah Kent’s dark but humane first novel, Burial Rites.

Agnes Magnœsd¿ttir is a pauper and serving woman who’s been arrested and condemned to death for the murder of her employer and lover, Natan, a man looked upon by the country folk as a shady character—his very name is a play on the name Satan, it’s said. To be fair, he is miserably cruel. He hits Agnes and never considers her as anything more than a comfort woman. He has a baby with another woman and sleeps with the other serving girl. But Agnes, who narrates much of the otherwise third-person narrative, remains in love with Natan. So why would she murder him? And if she didn’t kill him, why doesn’t she proclaim her innocence?

Because there are no prisons in their region of Iceland, Agnes is sent to live with the family of a district officer. This isn’t as comfortable as it sounds, for the family at the farm at KornsŒ are only a tad less poor than other local farmers. The officer’s consumptive wife, MargrŽt, resents Agnes’ invasion of her home, until her own natural goodness and maternal instincts take over. But the younger daughter loathes Agnes, while the older is strangely drawn to her almost from the beginning. Added to the mix is the callow assistant reverend, nicknamed T¿ti, whom Agnes calls upon to be her confessor and who quickly becomes fascinated with her.

Kent has a sturdy grasp of place and history, as well as a talent for creating memorable characters—from MargrŽt’s family to their eternally pregnant and gossipy neighbo[Sat Aug 30 18:27:14 2014] Wide character in print at E:\websites\aquabrowser\IMCPL\app\site\ line 249. r and the uncertain and smitten young priest. And, of course, Agnes. In this day and age, it’s not politically correct to admire a woman who’s in thrall to a brute like Natan, but there’s no doubt of Agnes’ strength of character, her wisdom and practicality (in things other than love) and her essential, vulnerable humanity. Based on a true story, Burial Rites gives us a vivid portrayal of a distant time and land that still somehow feels familiar.

Copyright 2012 BookPage Reviews.

BookPage Reviews 2014 April
New paperback releases for reading groups

Set in New York City during the Prohibition era, Suzanne Rindell’s The Other Typist is a captivating mystery with an unassuming heroine at its heart. Rose Baker—respectable, conscientious and more than a little mousy—works as a typist for the New York City police, documenting spine-tingling criminal confessions. The sensational stories she’s exposed to at work add spice to her somewhat mundane life. When a typist named Odalie is hired, Rose finds herself fascinated by her new co-worker. Odalie is flirtatious, beautiful and brazen, and she leads the life of a flapper, frequenting speakeasies and dressing in the latest styles. Rose becomes wrapped up in Odalie’s world, but she’s plagued by doubts about her new friend’s intentions. She soon discovers that Odalie is not at all who she seems to be. This richly detailed, skillfully constructed mystery offers a fascinating look at life in 1920s New York. Rindell’s depiction of the city is convincing, and her gift for dialogue adds zest to the proceedings. Fans of historical fiction and suspense will love this debut.

Pulitzer-Prize winning novelist Elizabeth Strout is back with another compelling family drama. The Burgess Boys is the story of Jim and Bob Burgess, brothers who, along with their sister, Susan, experienced a traumatic accident when they were kids—a mishap on the part of Bob that led to the death of their father. Although they’ve both become successful New York attorneys, the brothers aren’t close. Arrogant, self-centered Jim is a heavyweight at a corporate law firm, while modest, down-to-earth Bob works with Legal Aid. When Susan summons them home to Maine to help her son, who has been charged with a hate crime, the brothers’ contrasting reactions reveal just how different they really are. The fresh family crisis also dredges up unpleasant memories—issues from the past that they’re forced to come to terms with. Strout’s spot-on depictions of sibling friction are sure to strike a chord with her many fans. Her deep understanding of human motivations and psychology lend authenticity to this unforgettable family tale.

Hannah Kent’s chilling debut novel, Burial Rites, is based on the true story of Agnes Magnúsdøttir, a maid accused of murder who was the last defendant in Iceland to face the death penalty. The year is 1829, and Agnes is being held at a remote farm in lieu of a prison until the time of her execution. Jón Jónsson, owner of the farm and a local official, is responsible for Agnes, and her presence creates a definite sense of unease among his family. Agnes asks for a priest, and it’s through her conversations with him that parts of her story unfold. Agnes has been accused of the murder of her employer and his friend, but in spite of that fact, she earns the audience’s compassion. Her tale is perfectly matched by its grim Scandanavian setting. Kent deftly weaves historical fact into this hypnotic work of fiction. It’s an unsettling portrait of a woman whose motives and actions are darkly fascinating.

Copyright 2012 BookPage Reviews.

Kirkus Reviews 2013 April #2
With language flickering, sparkling and flashing like the northern lights, Kent debuts with a study of Agnes Magnsdttir, an Icelandic servant convicted of an 1828 murder. The murder was horrific: two men bludgeoned, stabbed and burnt. Agnes and two others were convicted, but sentences--Agnes was to be beheaded--require confirmation by Denmark's royal government. Kent opens her powerful narrative with Agnes, underfed and unwashed, being moved from district capital imprisonment to Korns, a valley farmstead. Stoic, dutiful Jn and his tubercular wife, Margrt, are forced by circumstance to accept her charge. Reflecting intimate research, the story unfolds against the fearsome backdrop of 19th-century Icelandic life. It's a primitive world where subsistence farmers live in crofts--dirt-floored, turf-roofed hovels--and life unfolds in badstofa, communal living/sleeping rooms. Beautiful are Kent's descriptions of the interminable summer light, the ever-present snow and ice and cold of winter's gloomy darkness, the mountains, sea and valleys where sustenance is blood-rung from sheep. Assistant Rev. Thorvardur has been assigned to "direct this murderess to the way of truth and repentance," but he is more callow youth than counselor. His sessions with Agnes come and go, and he becomes enamored of Agnes and obsessed by her life's struggles. Kent deftly reveals the mysterious relationship between Agnes, a servant girl whom valley folk believe a "[b]astard pauper with a conniving spirit," and now-dead Natan Ketilsson, a healer, some say a sorcerer, for whom she worked as a housekeeper. Kent writes movingly of Natan's seduction of the emotionally stunted Agnes--"When the smell of him, of sulphur and crushed herbs, and horse-sweat and the smoke from his forge, made me dizzy with pleasure"--his heartless manipulation and his cruel rejection. The narrative is revealed in third person, interspersed with Agnes' compelling first-person accounts. The saga plays out in a community sometimes revenge-minded and sometimes sympathetic, with Margrt moving from angry rejection to near love, Agnes ever stoic and fearful, before the novel reaches an inevitable, realistic and demanding culmination. A magical exercise in artful literary fiction. Copyright Kirkus 2013 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved.

Library Journal Reviews 2013 April #2

Drawing on real-life events, Kent retells the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, convicted of murder in 1829 Iceland. Kent won the 2011 Writing Australia Unpublished Manuscript Award for this work when she was a 26-year-old Ph.D. student in Australia; rights have since been sold to at least 18 countries after heated bidding.

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Library Journal Reviews 2013 July #1

Australian writer Kent marks her literary debut with a retelling of real-life events from 1828, Iceland, when Agnes Magnusdottir and two others are convicted and sentenced to death in a brutal double murder thought to have been motivated by greed and jealousy. The murderers were servants, assistants, and sometime lovers to one of the victims, wealthy and well-known herbalist and healer Natan Ketilsson. As Iceland's primitive prison system is ill equipped to house death row inmates, a local farm family is prevailed upon to board Agnes until the date of her execution. They are also expected to extend hospitality to the Assistant Reverend Thorvardur (Toti) Jonsson, whom Agnes chooses as a spiritual adviser. Over many chilly months, with Agnes working alongside the farmer's wife and daughters in their fields and close living quarters, her version of events emerges. As her story unfolds, her hosts' fear and loathing turn to empathy and understanding. VERDICT In the company of works by Hilary Mantel, Susan Vreeland, and Rose Tremain, this compulsively readable novel entertains while illuminating a significant but little-known true story. Highly recommended. [See Prepub Alert, 3/18/13.]--Barbara Love, Kingston Frontenac P.L., Ont.

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Publishers Weekly Reviews 2013 June #3

Kent's debut delves deep into Scandinavian history, not to mention matters of storytelling, guilt, and silence. Based on the true story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the novel is set in rural Iceland in 1829. Agnes is awaiting execution for the murder of her former employer and his friend, not in a prison--there are none in the area--but at a local family's farm. Jón Jónsson, the father, grudgingly accepts this thankless task as part of his responsibility as a regional official, but his wife and daughters' reactions range from silent resentment to outright fear. After settling in to the household, Agnes requests the company of a young priest, to whom she confesses parts of her story, while narrating the full tale only to the reader, who, like the priest, "provide her with a final audience to her life's lonely narrative." The multilayered story paints sympathetic and complex portraits of Agnes, the Jónssons, and the young priest, whose motives for helping the convict are complicated. Kent smoothly incorporates her impressive research-- for example, she opens many of the chapters with documents that come directly from archival sources--while giving life to these historical figures and suspense to their tales. Agent: Daniel Lazar, Writers House. (Sept.)

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