Sunday, April 12, 2015

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

I missed posting a read. Burial Rites was a Gables Book Club selection for February and in the midst of the business of life, I neglected to post.
In 1829 Iceland the last public execution was carried out. In this novel based on that happening, Kent describes the events and crime that led to the execution of Agnes Magnusdottir. 

Agnes and two others had been convicted of killing her employer and another man and then burning their bodies. At this time Iceland was under the rule of the Danish king and ratification of the death sentence needed to come from Denmark. Because of the overcrowding of the prisons, Agnes was removed from the prison to the farm of Jon Jonsson and his family to await day of execution. The Jonssons had no say in the matter as the edict came from District Commissioner Bjorn Blonda. It is understandable that they weren't happy with the situation.  In order to atone for her crime and give opportunities for penance, Reverend Toti is sent to the farm to be a sort of spiritual advisor for Agnes.

When she first arrived at the farm, the family was less than hospitable as to be expected. Why would they welcome a convicted murderer into their home? They had no choice and because of his position as a District Officer Jonsson felt that it was his duty. Margret and Steina, the older daughter, treated her civilly as Agnes proved herself to be a good servant in the household. 

Through the sessions with the minister, the reader learns of the troubled life Agnes led from her abandonment by her mother to the shunning by the man whom she believed loved her. The story is painted in such a way to elicit empathy and at times sympathy for the woman. It is hard to believe that she endured the life that she did without succumbing to the brutal conditions under which she lived. 

Hannah Kent also imbued the novel with another character in the setting. It is the harsh winters in Iceland and the remote rural setting that play heavily on the human characters in the novel. They cannot be separated from the world around them with the austere conditions of life. Their home is virtually falling down, water is scarce, and food dependent on the weather. A modern day reader is naturally horrified by appalling habitat.

Burial Rites was an informative and interesting read. The names were a bit problematic at first, but became easier as the novel progressed. It wouldn't have been a book that I would have chosen from browsing in a book store or library. However,  book clubs do force one to read outside of their comfort zone and this is one that I am glad to have read. 

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