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Book review: 'Burial Rites' is a chilling literary novel

By Tara Creel

For the Deseret News

Published: Saturday, April 12 2014 1:25 p.m. MDT

"BURIAL RITES," by Hannah Kent, Little, Brown and Co., $15, 322 pages (f)

"Burial Rites" by Hannah Kent is a chilling, lyrical literary debut full of haunting passages, an introspective plot and historical accuracy.

Kent went on an exchange to Iceland after graduation from high school and was immediately fascinated by Agnes Magnusdottir and her story. For the next few years, she immersed herself in research, finding out all she could about Agnes and what happened before she was beheaded in what would become the last public execution by beheading in Icelandic history.

Kent felt that the monstrous representation of Agnes was just one layer to the story, so she worked to weave fact and fiction into a tale that portrayed Agnes as a sympathetic human being whose fate had been dependent on the rumors spread by others.

In "Burial Rites," Agnes is taken to the farm of a public servant, Jón Jónsson, and is placed under the spiritual advisement of Tóti, an assistant priest. As the story unfolds, Agnes reveals parts of her past and her own side of the story that led to the double murder for which she was convicted.

Tóti and the Jónsson family soon come to discover that the story has been twisted and that both sides of the truth are not what they have seemed to be.

Kent infuses the coldness of an Icelandic winter and the misery of a woman who is living out her final days into her writing with a literary prose that haunts, chills and inspires wonder.

The research that went into the novel is apparent, but it doesn't slow the story down and only reinforces the setting and tension. From the clothing to the description of the setting and social classes, to the religious observance and the political entanglements, the reader is immersed in 1829 Iceland.

The multiple-points-of-view narration, alternating between first person Agnes and third person secondary characters, also adds to the depth of the story. This narration allows the reader to explore the themes of desire for acceptance and fear of corruption and shows how the characters grow and change as the story progresses and more truths are revealed.

"Burial Rites" is an intelligent yet lyrical, promising novel, which has recently been released in paperback.

While it is not excessively gruesome, it does contain dark subject matter, including themes and general descriptions of murder and death and also cruel treatment of a servant by a master. Sex is alluded to but not described.

If you go ...

What: Hannah Kent book signing

When: Thursday, April 17, 7 p.m.

Where: The King's English, 1511 S. 1500 East, Salt Lake City

Web: kingsenglish.com, hannahkentauthor.com

Note: Places in the signing line are reserved for those who purchase a copy of the featured book from The King's English.

Tara Creel is a Logan native and mother of three boys. Her email is taracreel@gmail.com, and she blogs at taracreelbooks.wordpress.com.

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