Monday, March 9, 2015

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Title: Burial Rites
Author: Hannah Kent
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Publication Date: September 10, 2013
Source: borrowed from the good ol' public library

Summary from Goodreads

Set against Iceland's stark landscape, Hannah Kent brings to vivid life the story of Agnes, who, charged with the brutal murder of her former master, is sent to an isolated farm to await execution. 

Horrified at the prospect of housing a convicted murderer, the family at first avoids Agnes. Only Tóti, a priest Agnes has mysteriously chosen to be her spiritual guardian, seeks to understand her. But as Agnes's death looms, the farmer's wife and their daughters learn there is another side to the sensational story they've heard.

My Review:

I have mixed feelings here, friends.  Burial Rites gets a lot of raves--you can look all over Goodreads and other book blogs to see that quite plainly.  Unfortunately, this one isn't sticking with me quite as strongly as I had hoped.  I'm not in love with Burial Rites, but I'd say I'm in like with it.

Kent has certainly done something unique here, as the basic story of Agnes Magnusdottir is, in fact, true.  She was the last woman executed in Iceland, back in 1828.  Kent took the general details of Agnes's conviction, imprisonment, and execution, and then made the story fictional by filling in all the information that you can't get from historical documents.  Agnes's relationships with her priest, the family that houses her as she awaits execution, and (most importantly) the men she allegedly killed, are all slowly brought to fruition as the novel unfolds.  In the end, you are left with a very morally ambiguous story that gives readers the opportunity to make their own decisions about Agnes's guilt (or innocence).

We've established that this book is unique and well-crafted.  And the writing is beautiful--no denying that.  So why am I only in LIKE with it?  Why couldn't I fall in LOVE?  For me, that answer lies in the pacing of the story.  As I said above, Agnes's story unfolds slowly...and by that I mean slowwwwwwwwwwwly.  The true nature of her relationship with the murder victims is brought to light through a series of conversations that she has with her priest and her host family.  Every one of these conversations is always cut short at some climactic moment, because a guest arrives, or the grass has to be harvested, a cow has to be milked, whatever.  By the last bit of the novel, it was enough to drive me crazy.  LEAVE THE COW ALONE, I WANT TO KNOW HOW THIS ENDS.

I don't always need a fast-moving plot to keep my attention--I love drawn-out, character-driven novels too.  But while the character development was very central to this book, there was still an element of mystery to it that left me feeling like I wanted things to move along a bit more.

So, while I did enjoy the questions that were raised at the end, by the time I got there, the lackadaisical pacing had tamped down my interest quite a bit.

Overall, I'd say this is a high quality read, and a unique take on historical fiction for sure.  However, the plot moved a bit too slowly for me, and that made it feel like more of a middle-of-the-road reading experience as a whole.  That said--I am definitely in the minority on this one, so if the description of this book has piqued your interest at all, don't let my lukewarm review keep you from giving it a try.

What was the last widely-loved novel you read that didn't quite hit the mark for you?


  1. I found it really slow moving as well. I struggled to get through it at times. It picked up for me in the second half, thank goodness. I liked it ok, but you won't get a rave review out of me. In fact, it's been on my review list for 2 weeks already and i still haven't written it.

    1. I'm glad I'm not the only one! I like a lot of slow-paced books, but I think the mystery aspect of the book made me expect something a little quicker.

  2. I remember at ALA a few years ago this was THE big book everyone was talking about. I put it on my list b/c I like stories that are rooted in actual events, especially historical fiction.

    Kate @ Ex Libris

    1. This would definitely be up your alley then! I tend to go back and forth with historical fiction (I've had lots of hits and lots of misses in that genre), so I knew it was a risk for me in that regard.

  3. I loved this book, but I get your point about how slowly it moved.

  4. This book has been on my wishlist and stayed there because I couldn't decide. Now I still can't. :-)

    1. Haha, sorry I couldn't be of more help!! :)

  5. Lol, love this review...slooooooowly ;) I happened to be wild about this book and I still think of it now and then. Isn't it funny how we all can have such different reactions to the same thing? I loved the pace and the atmosphere of this one, BUT I can totally see where you are coming from too!

    1. I do love to hear a differing opinion! :) Usually I love books that are more drawn out, that really develop the atmosphere, etc. but for whatever reason, just didn't work well for me this time.

  6. "LEAVE THE COW ALONE, I WANT TO KNOW HOW THIS ENDS" - haha! I have absolutely been there. There have been times I just skip right ahead.

    "The Secret Wisdom of the Earth" by Christopher Scotton was one that it seemed like everyone loved recently, but I wasn't crazy about it.

    1. Hmmm, I will have to check that one out--haven't heard of it before!

  7. I also loved this book but was all right with the slower pace. Maybe I needed that at the time.

    As for books others have loved? Well, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour got tons of acclaim but I could not even finish it. Just couldn't.

    1. Ah, I remember hearing about that one but didn't get around to reading it yet. Now you've got me curious!

  8. I was really distracted by some of the food. Like that yogurty stuff that wasn't yogurt that they kept feeding everyone? I guess it makes sense they had to find something to do with the milk from all the dang cows, but dang. I'm with you in the 'like' camp.

    1. Hahaha. Yes, there was an awful lot of interesting Icelandic peasant food, wasn't there?!?

  9. I enjoyed this book, but I didn't think it quite lived up to the rave reviews. The slow pace didn't bother me too much throughout, but the ending felt very anticlimactic to me.

    1. I'd agree with that...the ending didn't wow me at all. I didn't feel like it was worth all the drama that led up to it.

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