Book review: Burial Rites

BOOK: Burial Rites
AUTHOR: Hannah Kent
PUBLISHER: Picador, Pan Macmillan Aust
RRP: $32.99


BURIAL Rites, the debut novel by Australian author Hannah Kent, is a literary gem.

It was when Ms Kent travelled to Iceland as an exchange student that she first heard the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, who, in 1830 became the last woman executed in Iceland.

Agnes was one of three people convicted for her part in a brutal double murder and, while awaiting her execution, is sent to live in the household of District Officer Jón Jónsson.

The family resides in a bleak and austere community in a landscape which is as harsh and unforgiving as the atmosphere in which Agnes is incarcerated.

Jónsson has a wife, Margrét, and two teenage daughters and initially the family is appalled that they are required to board a convict in their house - least of all an infamous murderess - but are unable to refuse.

However, they can use an extra farmhand and Margrét is swift to put Agnes to work, not scrupling to utilise her help with numerous tasks in and around the farm. As the months pass at Kornsá, Agnes becomes part of the household.

Despite being raised in extreme poverty and deprivation, Agnes is intelligent and quick.

A foster mother - whose death in childbirth one dreadful winter night is devastatingly described - took the trouble to teach her to read, and she has an intimate knowledge of the Bible and of Icelandic folklore.

Only the Reverend Toti, the clergyman appointed to provide spiritual guidance as she prepares for her execution, has any interest in divining Agnes' story.

As the bitter winter drags on, it is in his conversations with Agnes- many of them overheard by the entire household in the confined space of the farmhouse - and later with Margrét, that we learn about her past and the events leading up to the murders.

Steeped in darkness, blood and despair, the story nevertheless exudes unmistakable human warmth.

This is an accomplished, finely crafted, compelling work about love and loss.

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