Books, Recommendations

Burial Rites – Hannah Kent

“They will say ‘Agnes’ and see the spider, the witch caught in the webbing of her own fateful weaving. They might see the lamb circled by ravens, bleating for a lost mother. But they will not see me. I will not be there.”

A few weeks ago, I was discussing books with a couple of friends, which ones we’d recommended to each other. One of them mentioned Burial Rites, thinking I had told her to read it, but it was actually the other friend who had; I hadn’t heard of it. There was a frantic search for it, but to no avail, so I took our library copy home the next day – they were so adamant that I read it, that I wasn’t even put off by it being a hardback. I started it over half term and, significantly for me lately, finished it in just over a week.

Burial Rites is about the last public execution in Iceland, of two women and a man, for murdering two men. It follows, particularly, Agnes Magnusdottir, through her imprisonment with a family on the valley she grew up in, through her last months. Books where you know the ending can be difficult, the suspense and uncertainty taken away, but this works, the uncertainty is still very much alive, right to the very end. The Iceland here is not bright and picturesque, but bleak and harsh, a hard place to live and work. The people are hardy, but heavily reliant on each other, as family, as neighbours, as employers and employees, to support each other, and this need is stronger than almost anything that divides them. The way that these people, in such hard conditions, relate to each other, is moving, and important, and also everyday. It’s that that makes Burial Rites so moving.

I can’t really sum this up. It’s beautiful, but unflinching, and nothing I can say about it really gets close to why it’s so moving. I can see why my friends loved it, and why they couldn’t really tell me much more about it than ‘you’ll love it, you should just read it’. They were, of course, right.

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