Burial Rites is an amazing debut novel. Set in Iceland in the early 1800s, it tells the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last woman to be executed in Iceland. The prevailing mood throughout the book is cold, lonely, and despairing, yet Kent has a gift of weaving bits of warmth and compassion throughout the sad story.
The Jonsson family is forced to take Agnes, an accused murderess, into their home until her execution. The family—parents and two daughters in their early 20s—is horrified that they must provide food and housing for her. The mother is afraid that her daughters will somehow become tainted—or worse— by their proximity to Agnes.
But as the weeks pass, that fear and repulsion turns to a grudging appreciation and even respect for Agnes. She works hard on the Jonsson's farm, never complaining or shirking her duties. Eventually, her life's story comes out in bits and pieces as she talks to the parish priest, a young man she chose specifically because he once helped her cross a stream and showed true compassion. Agnes's life, according to her narrative, had been a cold and lonely one, abandoned by her single mother at a young age and forced to be a servant throughout farms in Iceland. In her 30s she falls in love with Natan, the man whom she is accused of murdering. But did she murder for money or for love—or did she even murder him?
Kent is a mesmerizing storyteller. I am sure I have never read a novel before that takes place in Iceland, so that in itself was fascinating. What a cold, horrible way of life—yet Kent manages to create a spark of life into this dismal landscape. I found myself feeling so terribly hopeless for Agnes, holding out hope that someone might believe her innocence, even though I knew the outcome of the story.
I highly recommend this book. It's a fascinating piece of history, a glimpse into Iceland in the 1800s, and a really well written story.