Girl Gone Reading: Burial Rites, The Story of the Last Woman Executed in Iceland

Updated: Jan 27, 2019

I was lucky enough to travel to New Zealand and Australia back in 2015. While New Zealand had the most beautiful landscapes I had ever seen, the last week in Sydney was the most educational when it came to the cultural differences between there and here. Some were good and some were bad. I won’t get political, but because I believe a country’s cultural “life” is reflected in its modern literature, I became interested in reading a few books by Australian authors.

I wasn’t sure where to start with researching authors, so I went to Google and found Booktopia (Australia’s local online bookstore) and their list of Australia’s 50 Favorite Authors. The author I chose from this list is Hannah Kent, and the book is Burial Rites. I chose Ms. Kent for a few reasons. She is the co-founder of a literary journal with which I am familiar, Kill Your Darlings, but I didn’t know she was involved.

Next, she’s young – to me anyway – and I’m impressed by her accomplishments. She has her PhD, has a successful literary journal, she's working on her second novel, she is well-traveled, and Burial Rites is published in 20 languages with multiple awards under its belt. None of which are easy to add to a life resume by the time you're 28.

The main character in the book, Agnes Magnusdottir, is real. She was the last woman to be executed in Iceland in 1830 after being accused of killing two men.

The way Ms. Kent retells this story makes it very difficult to put down. She has a way with writing that is beautiful and poetic – you will feel as if you’re in Iceland’s bleak 1820’s landscape as this story unfolds. She has done her research well, and offers a more compassionate view of Agnes’s circumstances.

Agnes Magnusdottir, Wiki image

Agnes, along with two co-conspirators, was accused of murdering two men; one her master and one her lover. Agnes’s story is presented to a spiritual mentor (at her request) through a series of flashbacks written seamlessly and appropriately after she is sent to a district farm to await her execution. My favorite line from the book is very simple and very telling of the era in which Agnes lived:

“If I was young and simple-minded, do you think everyone would be pointing at me? No. They’d blame it on Fridrick ….But they see I have a head on my shoulders, and believe a thinking woman cannot be trusted. Believe there’s no room for innocence.”

In the beginning, it is a bit difficult to keep the characters straight. The names are unusual so I struggled to keep track of the people, but I became used to them the more I read and was able to figure out who is who quite quickly. I also found it hard to even like Agnes in the beginning, but once I got into her story and discovered the life she has lead up to that point, it’s hard not to imagine yourself in those same circumstances and feeling a bit of empathy for her. You’ll feel the pain, the cold, the hurt – everything that she feels – because Ms. Kent is that good at telling this story.

Even with knowing the outcome, I was fascinated and intrigued from the very first word and that did not waiver at any point during the book. I was drawn in and absorbed.

Burial Rites is a bit out of my normal wheelhouse for this type of read, but I’m very glad to have ventured out of my comfort zone for this one. I do love historical fiction but the setting was a bit too recent for my preferred genre in that area so I was pleasantly surprised. And even though the author isn’t writing about an Australian based story which was my goal when starting this process, it has opened up a new group of authors I probably wouldn’t have ever heard of let alone read.

Give it a shot. Pick up the e-book and let me know what you think. I hear a movie is coming soon!

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