Burial Rites

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Burial Rites has been on my bookshelf for a little while. I kept saving it for the winter because I felt that it would fit the season, but then I also thought that it would be a sad book, so I kept putting it off because I wasn’t in the mood.

This novel is set in Iceland in the 1820’s. Agnes Magnúsdóttir, Fridrik Sigurdsson, and Sigrídur Gudmundsdóttir have been accused of murdering an herbalist and another man and setting the herbalist’s home on fire in an attempt to hide the crime. Agnus awaits her execution in the care of nearby family, who are less than thrilled to host a murderess in their home, but Agnus grows closer to her hosts as she comes to terms with her fate. The novel is based on a true story.

I wouldn’t read this book if you are not in a good mental headspace because it is emotionally intense. The setting is also very harsh and bleak, and the writing and story reflect the setting. Agnus’s fate is decided, so she spends her days thinking about her past and awaiting her death. I came to sympathize with her and her story. Her hosts are understandably uncomfortable with her presence in their home, especially because they have two impressionable daughters, but I enjoyed seeing the supporting cast grow to care about and respect Agnus as I did. The book’s chapters are rather long, but they are broken into sections. The perspective that you read from changes throughout the chapter, which took some time for me to get used to. Some sections are in Agnus’s first-person perspective. Other times the perspective is in third person with a focus on either the host family or the reverend that is tasked with soothing Agnus’s soul.

The author did a great job of fleshing out the village and its people, the valley’s gossip and rumors, and the truth behind the murder. The plot is not action packed. Most of the story involves Agnus sitting down with other characters and her telling her backstory to them. Only a small portion of the action is set in the present. I really enjoyed the novel, but I found it a bit too predictable. Since it is based on the true story of the last execution in Iceland, the ending is not a surprise. But I also guessed a few of the major plot events as well as the truth behind the murder. The writing is beautiful and very introspective, and as I said it fits the setting very well. There is a lot of symbolism and themes/discussion on feminism, the patriarchy, justice, etc., but for some reasons I wasn’t overly impressed by what I read.

I gave Burial Rites four out of five stars, which is an excellent rating, but it just wasn’t a favorite. However, I enjoyed the atmospheric writing and the emotional depth of the novel very much and would recommend it to fans of historical fiction.

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