An Icelandic Murderess

I wish the last 2 months allowed for more stories on the blog, but in lieu of writing reflections, here's a review of my most recently read book: Burial Rites, a historical fiction debut novel by Hannah Kent. It's based on the true story of Agnes Magnussdottir—the last woman beheaded in Iceland.

Burial RitesBurial Rites by Hannah Kent
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is some really excellent storytelling. The intimate, visceral prose folds you into the characters' thoughts. Very few stock characters—though the Reverend Toti reminds me of the priest in Morley Callaghan's Such Is My Beloved.

I recently visited Iceland 2 months ago, and was struck by its raw, wild beauty. Sweeping landscapes, and the utter, desolate isolation of its scattered inhabitants. This author captures it well, and makes you marvel at the generations before us who braved those brutal winters, with sheep dung for fuel and little but stories to brighten the long dark.

I don't know much about Agnes Magnussdottir, but I am always a fan of stories that try to portray the other side of a villain—a little bit like The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley. That was the first Arthurian book I'd ever read that told Morgaine's story in a sympathetic light.

The only reason I don't give this book 5 stars is that the narrative is fogged—as though we are lost in Agnes' thoughts. That's part of what makes the storytelling so good: she is reeling from her situation, trauma, and the reality of her pending execution. However, that style makes it hard to want to pick up again. I was often jolted out of the story when the narration switched perspectives, and so the book doesn't get my 5-star-would-read-again-in-a-second rating.

But well, well done. What a great debut. A grim, brutally beautiful tale—so much like the landscape upon which it is played.

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