Hannah Kent - Burial Rites (4 stars)

Hannah Kent - Burial Rites

A 'speculative biography' of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, a suspect in Iceland's Illugastadir murders


It’s grim in Northern Iceland in 1829, or at least it is for Agnes Magnúsdóttir, condemned to death for her part in the Illugastadir murders. Based on a true story, Burial Rites aims to fill in some of the gaps left in the history of this event.

Before the story begins there is a pronunciation key and a quick note explaining surnames, hinting at the level of detail to come. The author spent nearly two years researching the historical setting for the book and her prose is full of deft touches describing the way people lived, from descriptions of homes to interpretations of sagas. Having said that, Kent has a lightness of touch that means her research never feels like an information dump, and she is excellent at the slow build.

It is clear from the start that this is an unusual case. Murderers are usually sent away to the mainland to be dealt with, one character protests, yet Agnes is to be held in the district where she grew up, a place where everyone knows her – or thinks they do. Unable to give her version of events, Agnes makes a conscious decision to keep it to herself but, as the story unfolds, she begins to open up.

The narrative switches between first and third person, giving a sense of what everyone thinks of each other, enabling the reader to empathise with Agnes. There is lingering uncertainty as to her guilt, but ultimately that isn’t the point. Kent has said in interviews that she wrote Burial Rites as a speculative biography because records either paint Agnes as a monster, or ignore her completely. With this attempt to understand what she might have been like, Kent has created a haunting and immersive debut.