I had seen this book a lot on Youtube and was intrigued from the first time I heard what it was about. The lovely people at Picador were kind enough to send me a copy and I cannot express how utterly gorgeous this book is in real life – the image really doesn’t do it justice! It has that buttery texture and black-edged pages, the cover image is so simple yet striking and the pages themselves are a thicker paper than usual, giving this a rich feel. It is honestly one of the nicest editions of any book that I own.
Going into this I knew very little about the plot but, as in 2014 I’m wanting to read more adult fiction, I thought I’d give this a chance and I’m really glad I did.
The setting was one of the main things that drew me into this book. It is set in Iceland so obviously the names of the characters are Icelandic but I didn’t feel like this ruined the experience at all. There is a really handy pronunciation guide at the front of the novel, which is unusual, that really helps (though I still probably pronounced everything wrong anyway!). It really added to the book and made it a lot more approachable, especially to someone like me who has never read anything set in Iceland. Though I loved the setting and the atmosphere that was created around it, sometimes there were phrases written in Icelandic that were not translated; although I mostly got the idea of what was going on, I sometimes felt that it was a little jarring compared to the rest of the lyrical writing.
Structurally this book is very unusual because as well as being split into chapters, each long chapter is split into sections, focussing on or sometimes narrated by a different character. These sections aren’t titled with which character is speaking so at times it was a little difficult to understand who was speaking but as I got to know the characters, and as the plot unfolded, I became more aware of who was speaking in each bit.
The poverty of the family and the detailed descriptions subtly build up the landscape and a clearer picture of the family and their situation. Each character has a very distinct personality and although you end up feeling sorry for Agnes, especially at the beginning, not knowing the full situation and circumstances of the murder really makes the reader sympathise with the Jonsson family. It is interesting to see how, even though the book is set in rural Iceland in 1829, there are thing that are familiar to a reader of today: the gossiping between neighbours, the fear of being put in this situation, the mystery surrounding Agnes and the murders, and it makes the reader connect more with the story and relate to the characters even though their situation, nationality and time period is alien to the modern reader.
“Up in the highlands blizzards howl like the widows of fishermen and the wind blisters the skin off your face. Winter comes like a punch in the dark. The uninhabited places are as cruel as the executioner.”
The mystery surrounding Agnes’ past is hinted at throughout and builds slowly, one small detail at a time. Knowing that Burial Rites is based on real events makes the book even more mysterious, not knowing which bits are fact or fiction. This made it the first adult book in a long time that has kept me hooked from the beginning. The fluidity of the prose, Hannah Kent’s ability to make even the most bleak of scenes seem almost magical in its dark haunting atmosphere, really hooks you into the moment, drawing you into the story as though you are observing the events unfolding before your eyes.
This is a definite adult book with some references to rape, childbirth, abuse and obviously murder, but I found that the gorier bits were relevant and realistic so, although it was shocking at points, this book was also one of the most atmospheric that I have read.
This book is definitely quite slow in pace, but rightly so. The pace reflects the way of life in Iceland at that time and the story of the murders is revealed slowly and carefully, keeping the reader interested throughout, not revealing the truth until the last fifty pages or so. I really liked that the Author’s Note told of what was fact and fiction, something that was not obvious in the actual novel.
Overall, this was an amazingly atmospheric novel that is hauntingly beautiful from beginning to chilling end. I would definitely recommend it and am looking forward to more of Hannah Kent’s work.