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Book 96: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Book 96: Burial Rites.
Author: Hannah Kent, 2013.
Genre: Historical Fiction. Iceland 19th Century.
Other Details: ebook. 337 pages.

In northern Iceland, 1829, Agnes Magnúsdóttir is condemned to death for her part in the brutal murder of two men. Agnes is sent to wait out the time leading to her execution on the farm of District Officer Jón Jónsson, his wife and their two daughters. Horrified to have a convicted murderess in their midst, the family avoids speaking with Agnes. Only Tóti, the young assistant reverend appointed as Agnes’s spiritual guardian, is compelled to try to understand her, as he attempts to salvage her soul.

As the summer months fall away to winter and the hardships of rural life force the household to work side by side, Agnes’s ill-fated tale of longing and betrayal begins to emerge. And as the days to her execution draw closer, the question burns: did she or didn’t she?
- synopsis from author's website.

This début novel by Hannah Kent is based on true events. When Kent travelled as a teenager to Iceland as part of a cultural exchange programme she heard the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir and later undertook years of research of original and secondary sources to create this haunting novel.

The narrative does shift from an omniscient third person narrator to sections in which Agnes tells her own story as well as various documents associated with the trial and even poetry. The seasons pass from the endless days of an Arctic summer through autumn to the coming of the deep snows of winter. Kent's research is very thorough and yet it felt almost invisible as the story, its characters and setting held my attention.

Burial Rites has won a number of literary prizes and been short-listed for others, including the 2014 Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction. It is for this last prize that I am reading it though I think I would have wanted to read it anyway given its powerful story and Kent's beautiful writing.

Keep Calm and Carry On: an unexpected path to publication - article by Hannah Kent on writing Burial Rites.
Tags: award winner, historical fiction
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