Agnes Magnusdottir has been condemned to death for her involvement in the murder of two men, one of them her lover. As she awaits confirmation of her sentence she recounts the events leading up to these deaths to a young priest, appointed as her spiritual advisor, and the members of the family she has been billeted with.
Burial Rites is a sort of a Nordic “Crime and Punishment”. It is beautifully written and desperately sad, a story of both the physical violence that destroys lives, and the violence of poverty that destroys hope as well.
It is a very rich book – a portrait of a poor rural community on the edge of the world in northern Iceland at the beginning of the 19th Century; a whodunnit; a book about the redemptive power of decency.
At the heart of the story is Agnes – a fiercely intelligent woman cursed by the bad luck of her birth – finally finding a place in a family and a community as a sword of Damocles, in this case an executioner’s axe, hangs over her.
It is a fine work, extraordinary also that it is Hannah Kent’s first novel.