Hannah Kent begins her extraordinary debut novel, Burial Rites, with a rather grim ending in mind. It is summer in 19th century Iceland. A woman, Agnes, is accused of brutally murdering two men in a small village. The court scoffs at her plea of innocence and she is sentenced to death.
These are the facts. But the family who must house this alleged murderess on their farm until her death quickly learns that things are not always what they seem. When she arrives at their home, Agnes is surprisingly harmless and covered in scars from mistreatment in prison. What happened to this woman? Is she really capable of carrying out such a heinous act? These questions plague sisters Steina and Laura–and even their mother, Margret–as they struggle to cope with the presence of this unwelcome visitor.
Kent effortlessly juggles the book’s multiple storylines, including the powerful, inner dialogue of Agnes. As the story unfolds, she offers glimpses into Agnes’ life and slowly paints a picture of a woman who is very different from the one her accusers make her out to be.
In the hands of an inexperienced writer, the story of Agnes Magnusdottir could have easily crumbled into a lesser tale. But Kent is a master storyteller who reaches tenderly and unflinchingly into the center of what it means to take hold of oneself, even in the darkest hours.
Elegant and ambitious, Kent’s prose will be enjoyed by both literary and commercial fiction readers alike.
Based on the true story of Iceland’s last execution, Burial Rites by Hannah Kent is our Best Damn Book Club pick for September. To pick up your copy, click here.