Burial Rites by Hannah Kent; published 2013 by Little, Brown and Company
Genre: Historical Fiction
Review in a word: Human
Opening line: “They said I must die.”
Burial Rites is the haunting story of Agnes Madnusdottir, the last person to be executed in Iceland. Agnes is accused of murdering her employer, Natan Ketilsson. While she is waiting for her execution, she is placed with the family of Margret, Jon, and their two daughters. They’re not at all pleased to be housing a murderess, and obviously treat her with suspicion. A young and naive assistant reverend, Toti, is charged with hearing Agnes’s confession and helping her prepare for her death. As Agnes slowly reveals the story of her life and the tragic night that sealed her fate, everyone wonders: Is she really guilty?
This story is mesmerizing. I could not put it down. I had to know what happened, and if you read this book you will not be disappointed.
I was a little surprised to find that Agnes isn’t really a likable character—at least not at first. But you come to sympathize with her. She’s tough and ambitious and snarky. She has lived a life in and out of foster families, betrayed by people who are supposed to take care of her, abused, and abandoned. Even before she was named a criminal, people hated her. Through her heartbreaking confession to Toti, you see the fear and suspicion melt away from the family. Her story makes it clear that you cannot judge someone because of one moment in his/her life.
It reminded me of the amazing TED Talk by author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Half of a Yellow Sun) titled “The Danger of a Single Story.” If you haven’t watched this video, watch it now.
Recommend? Yes. I love books that are a lesson in empathy, and this book is certainly that.