Saturday, December 14, 2013
Burial Rites (Hannah Kent)
This book tells the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, an Icelandic woman from the 1820s who really existed. Historically, she was accused of killing a man and was beheaded for her crimes, widely regarded as a villian by the community. Kent's delicious debut aims to provide Agnes with a voice to speak about the crime and the result is absolutely spectacular.
Before reading this book, I had no idea about Agnes' existence or story. If you haven't, either, don't worry. This isn't the sort of historical fiction that requires you to know a lot about the original history to understand, and thank goodness. Those are generally very annoying books. If you decide to read this book (and I beg you, please read it), you needn't worry about lacking context.
Burial Rites is overflowing with goodness. The novel is breathtakingly atmospheric. I felt swept up inside ~1828 Iceland in the way that tells me how good the book is--I felt trapped there, enwrapped and ensnared in the unforgiving landscape. The last book to capture me in such a way was The Snow Child. In both instances, I never wanted to leave behind even the setting. For most books, the writing about a setting is a throwaway for me as I rarely care where a book happens. But Kent made me belong to this time and place. Incredible.
Agnes Magnúsdóttir is a great character. I don't know about how historically accurate she is, but the way Kent presents her is beautiful. She is a heartbreaking, dazzling creation. You want to hate her because you know she's been convicted of murder, but your heart will end up with hundreds of tiny lesions every time she speaks, and like the rest of the characters in this novel (who are all also expertly-made), you will love her and want to protect her by the end of the tale. She is a perfectly-written tragic character.
The writing is decadent and sumptuous. I often pay little attention to writing; that is, I don't award points for beautiful writing but I will subtract for clunky or bad phrasing, because I often find that books filled with sentential gems (especially modern ones) are often lacking in just about everything else. If I could name that problem, I'd call it the "MFA illness", where people who get taught about writing fiction get too caught up in making their words sparkle. I cannot stress enough that THIS IS NOT THE CASE FOR BURIAL RITES. The whole book is fantastic, even the writing, with sentence after sentence glimmering and sparkling and driving knives into your body.
Do yourself a favor. Read Hannah Kent's book. It is the sort of art that creeps into you, fills you with dread, heartbreak and kindness and then leaves you empty, haunted and craving more.
My rating: 5/5
Burial Rites on Goodreads
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