They said I must die. They said that I stole the breaths from men, and now they must steal mine. I imagine, then, that we are all candle flames, greasy-bright, fluttering in the darkness and the howl of the wind, and in the stillness of the room I hear footsteps, awful coming footsteps, coming to blow me out and send my life up away from me in a grey wreath of smoke. In northern Iceland, 1829, Agnes Magnusdottir is condemned to death for her part in the brutal murder of her lover. Agnes is sent to wait out her final months ...
They said I must die. They said that I stole the breaths from men, and now they must steal mine. I imagine, then, that we are all candle flames, greasy-bright, fluttering in the darkness and the howl of the wind, and in the stillness of the room I hear footsteps, awful coming footsteps, coming to blow me out and send my life up away from me in a grey wreath of smoke. In northern Iceland, 1829, Agnes Magnusdottir is condemned to death for her part in the brutal murder of her lover. Agnes is sent to wait out her final months on the farm of district office Jon Jonsson, his wife and their two daughters. Horrified to have a convicted murderer in their midst, the family avoid contact with Agnes. Only Toti, the young assistant priest appointed Agnes's spiritual guardian, is compelled to try to understand her. As the year progresses and the hardships of rural life force the household to work side by side, Agnes' story begins to emerge and with it the family's terrible realization that all is not as they had assumed. Based on actual events, Burial Rites is an astonishing and moving novel about the truths we claim to know and the ways in which we interpret what we're told. In beautiful, cut-glass prose, Hannah Kent portrays Iceland's formidable landscape, in which every day is a battle for survival, and asks, how can one woman hope to endure when her life depends upon the stories told by others?
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Iceland, 1828 and two men, Natan Ketilsson and Pétur Jónsson, are found dead within the burnt remains of a farm building. On closer inspection of the charred bodies it becomes obvious that they have been murdered. Fridrik Sigrdsson, Sigridur Gudmundsdóttir and Agnes Magnúsdóttir are arrested, tried and condemned to death.
While the three accused await the final judgement from the King of Denmark, Agnes Is moved from prison to stay with a District Officer, Jón Jónsson, and his family at Kornsä until the final decree as to her fate is decided by the King. Agnes asks for her spiritual needs to be administered by Assistant Reverend Thorvardur Jónsson who it appears has had no past connection with the condemned woman.
Jón Jónsson and his family, Margrét his wife and his two daughters Steina and Lauga, are of course horrified at the thought of housing a murderess but with Jón Jónsson?s status as a District Officer he has no option but to comply with the command from the District Commissioner, Björn Blöndal.
The story is related dichotomously in the first person narrative by Agnes and in a third person omniscient narrative. This method is perfect for this novel as it allows the readers to not only get inside Agnes?s mind but to also decide if what she relates to others is truthful or is of a meretricious nature. There are also an epistolary element to the novel with the inclusion of poems, letters and official documents.
The author Hannah Kent has written a gripping a story that makes one feel the need to voraciously devour the book in as few sittings as possible. Hannah Kent has a gripping and hypnotic style of writing that defies the fact that this is her first novel. She weaves and knits together paragraphs in a sententious manner as to be as concise and compact as the snow that falls on Kornsä farm.
?Then I understood that it was not me they stared at. I understood that these people did not see me. I was two dead men. I was a burning farm. I was a knife. I was blood.?
The author perfectly captures the Icelandic landscape and its seemingly unrelenting, devastating weather that seems hell bent on killing all living things on the island. Hannah Kent captures an austere Icelandic way of life and conveys a country and its people who are as tough, pragmatic and as primitive as the Icelandic language.
?...the thrill of escape is sucked away, like water down a geyser. I would only be trading one death sentence for another. Up in the Highlands blizzards howl like the widows of fishermen and the wind blisters the skin off your face. Winter comes like a punch in the dark. The uninhabited places are as cruel as any executioner.?
But, I have one major negative criticism of the novel and that is its rather obvious derivative storyline. It has a few similarities with Anita Shreve?s 1997 novel, The Weight of Water*, but has many, many glaring similarities to Margaret Atwood?s 1996 novel, Alias Grace*: female murderer, 19th century, based on true events, women who are more intelligent than their status implies, domestic servants, men attempting to understand the accused and in so doing become charmed by them, third person/first person narrative to name but a few.
However, the derivative nature of the novel is forgivable due to the novels exuberant, eloquent style and its ability to punch above the weight of a young first time author.
First Line - "They said I must die."
Memorable Line - "Memories shift like loose snow in a wind, or are a choral of ghosts all talking over one another."
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