Burial Rites – NLBC February 2015

If you were wondering: yes, I skipped one month. January’s book was Georges Berec’s A Void, and unfortunately I haven’t got much to say about it. I tried to read it quickly before the meeting, but although it is not a massive volume, I could not manage to finish it in time.

On the other hand, I finished Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites in less than a week. Here is what it is about and why.

The story is set in Iceland in 1820s and is inspired by the story of the last woman to be executed in the country, Agnes Magnúsdóttir. The author concentrates on the months preceding her death, when she is allocated to a local farm, to spend her last time helping the family. The story is told through different points of view, among which Agnes’ and Toti’s, the priest she has chosen to guide her before her death. At the beginning, silence is the the most conspiuous element: the silence of Icelandic landscape, the stubborn silence of Agnes, who is convinced that everyone would twist her words if she decides to speak; the suspicious silenece of the  District Officer Jón Jónsson and his family; the embarassed silence of reverend Toti, who feels inadequate for the task. However, the story slowly unravels as Agnes and the inhabitants of the house start getting used to her presence in the house. The family will learn that nothing was as it seemed to be, and they will need to learn how to live with their own judgement.

At first, I was a bit skeptical about the book. It was presented to me as an introspective crime novel and I have to confess that it was not entirely enticing. As I read through thouh, I resigned to change my mind.

First of all, I am very passionate about Iceland; having been working for months on a project involving the Sagas of the Icelanders and Norse mythology, I found myself thrilled at the discovery that the story is based on true events. I made some basic research, and stumbled upon a list of the records of the last women subject to capital punishment in Europe; I read it with unexpected interest (did you know that the last woman to be sentenced to death in Licchtenstein was a thief called Barbara Erni in 1785? Criminal punishment was to be abolished two years later). Sadly, I found very little about Agnes’ true story. I suspect that I would benefit from Icelandic classes, but for now I will rely on Kent’s writing.

Second, the characters are multifaceted and relatable: each one of them has its flaws and weaknesses and I could not be completely partial to anyone because different actions made me feel contrasting feelings.

Third, the plot is interesting and gripping. Although you already know how it is going to end (unless you decided not to google Agnes), the story is a journey into the past, into the complex reasons the lead the woman to her actions.

For this reason, the book maybe suffers the lack of dramatic plot twists or turns of events, having those happened before the narration, but I believe it has other good selling points, as I already described.

In addition, the portrait of Icelandic daily life is convincing, detailed and sometimes even cruel: Hannah Kent definitely knows what she is talking about.

Finally, Agnes is a female protagonist with strong dignity and self-consciousness, even when she faces the other characters filthy and soiled after months of detention. I could not always relate with her, but I feel I respect her and I felt her more human than other fictional characters with historical pretension I read in the past.

I would definitely recomend the book to the lovers of Iceland, of introspective fiction and historical fiction. If you are all three, you will certainly be satisfied.

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