Monday, November 11, 2013

Review: Burial Rites

Summary: Set against Iceland's stark landscape, Hannah Kent brings to vivid life the story of Agnes, who, charged with the brutal murder of her former master, is sent to an isolated farm to await execution. 

Horrified at the prospect of housing a convicted murderer, the family at first avoids Agnes. Only Toti, a priest Agnes has mysteriously chosen to be her spiritual guardian, seeks to understand her. But as Agnes's death looms, the farmer's wife and their daughters learn there is another side to the sensational story they've heard. 

Riveting and rich with lyricism, BURIAL RITES evokes a dramatic existence in a distant time and place, and asks the question, how can one woman hope to endure when her life depends upon the stories told by others? -- Little, Brown

I was excited when I learned that Pennie Clark selected BURIAL RITES by Hannah Kent for Costco's Buyer's Pick for November. I had already finished this novel and thought it was a fantastic read, but I was afraid that it might fly under the radar. Thanks to Costco's successful book program, I hope that this intriguing and well written novel will make it into the hands of many readers who wouldn't otherwise have heard of this story.

BURIAL RITES is based on a true murder story and takes place in Iceland in the 19th century. The story centers around Agnes, a woman who was found guilty of brutally murdering and setting fire to her master and another man. Since there were no prisons for women during this time, Agnes was sent to live with a family on an isolated farm until her execution. Naturally, the family is less than thrilled to be hosting a "monster."

Initially, Agnes is treated very much like a prisoner, but she is given the opportunity to select a spiritual guide. She chooses an unlikely candidate Reverend Toti, a young man who does not feel that his is up for the job. As Agnes spends more time with the wife and daughters of the host family, as well as the Reverend, she begins to reveal what really happened during the murders. Eventually, the family members and the Reverend begin to see another side to the story and Agnes as a person.

If I'm being entirely honest, I wasn't sure that BURIAL RITES appealed to me. I'm always up for a good mystery, and especially a literary one at that, but the setting and the historical aspect didn't really call out to me like I had hoped. However, I had seen so much buzz for this book at this year's BEA and then some really positive reviews, that I decided to take a chance on the novel.

It's a good thing I did because I really liked this book, and I was very impressed with Ms. Kent's debut novel. I actually found the historical parts of this story to be extremely well done. It's apparent that the author really researched and understood the subject matter, and she did an excellent job of incorporating real text from the historic documents into the novel.  But I also liked how the author created another angle to this real-life story. Most people consider Agnes to be a brutal murderer; however, Ms. Kent made her very complex and therefore a very human character with a hidden story to tell.

Furthermore, I thought Ms Kent's prose was beautiful. Despite not being thrilled with the setting, I actually found Ms. Kent's descriptions of 19th century Iceland to be amazing. She brought to life this time period in such a vivid manner with her details while also incorporating facts about it that I found intriguing. In addition, Ms. Kent made the characters multi-dimensional and interesting as individuals as well as how they related to Agnes.

As far as the mystery aspect of the story goes, I found myself very interested in discovering the truth. I became frustrated with Hannah initially because I knew there was more to the story that she was sharing. As Agnes opened up to a few of the characters, the "truth" behind the story was revealed; and I discovered that I was satisfied with the story the author created.

BURIAL RITES would make an outstanding book club selection. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to find a guide on the publisher's website or the author's. However, I don't think one is absolutely necessary for a quality discussion. There are many interesting themes to discuss including class structure, the role of women in Iceland society in the 19th century, politics, the death penalty, the justice system, honesty, abuse, forgiveness, and redemption.

I definitely found BURIAL RITES to be a quality literary mystery and I highly recommend it.

Thanks to the publisher for providing a copy of this novel.

Mystery Mondays is a regular feature where I review all types of mystery books -- traditional mysteries, suspense/thrillers, and even cozies! Please feel free to share your thoughts on any recent mystery books that you've read. Mystery Mondays is a regular feature where I review all types of mystery books -- traditional mysteries, suspense/thrillers, and even cozies! Please feel free to share your thoughts on any recent mystery books that you've read.


bermudaonion said...

I've heard all the buzz on this book as well. I wonder if I could talk my book club into it.

Sandy Nawrot said...

Oooh this book is right up my alley. I've heard good things about it too. I didn't know Costco had a book program...I'm off to check it out. Hubby LOVES to go to Costco every weekend.

Alison Skap said...

This is on my list of books to get to before the end of the year! A few members of my book club have already read it (they came to Power Reader Day and got an ARC!) and they loved it.