Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Burial Rites

By Hannah Kent

PBR Book Review:

Hannah Kent's debut novel, BURIAL RITES is inspired by the true story of the last women put to death in Iceland during the 1800's. I didn't want to put this book down. With razor-sharp writing and beautiful prose, Kent explores the mind of Agnes, the convicted killer. As she awaits execution, Agnes is placed in the home of a judge and his family.

She's a very unwelcome guest and after spending many years in solitary confinement and being grossly mistreated, her adjustment to this living situation is problematic. The harsh countryside of Iceland is the perfect backdrop for this novel, as it represents the sad, cold, and twisted story of Agnes's life. BURIAL RITES is an excellent Book Club choice and offers many points for discussion. Because of the subject matter, it's a little dark. It reminded me of A RELIABLE WIFE by Robert Goolrick.

Book Club Talking Points:

Because this book deals with the topic of capital punishment, it will inevitably evoke varying opinions. The justice system in 1800's Iceland was quite harsh and will present many topics for discussion. Compassion, love, and forgiveness are essential components of the story giving you lots to talk about in this dark tale.
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*Discussion Questions

1. What do you make of the historical documents (both real and fictionalized) that begin each chapter? How did these change or aid your understanding of Agnes's story?

2. Agnes often comments on the ways in which she has been silenced, or had her story altered by the authorities. Why do you think she has such an anguished relationship to language?

3. Fate and destiny are major themes in this novel, for Agnes seems fated to have come to the end she does. Could she have escaped this destiny? Was there a turning point in her life that she might have avoided?

4. Are Steina, Lauga and Margret changed by Agnes's time with them? Has her fate changed theirs in any way?

5. Death is a major theme in this novel, but it is also about life and living. When Agnes faces the day of her execution all she wants to do is live, despite the harrowing nature of the life she has endured. Discuss.

6. Blondal is the real villain of this piece. His dispassionate communications with those whom he controls are filled with venom and spite. What did you make of his decision to lodge Agnes with District Officer Jon and his family? What do you believe happened at Stora-Borg that caused Blondal to move Agnes to Kornsa?

7. Toti's interest in Agnes's case begins as a young cleric wanting to prove himself to his elders, to a sincere desire to defend a condemned woman. His growth in compassion and his readiness to stand up to his seniors is one of the most significant themes in this novel. Discuss.

8. Agnes goes to her death holding Toti's hand, for they have discovered a deep need for each other. Is this story ultimately about the loneliness of our end in life? Or does it celebrate the comfort that a person can bring to the dying? Discuss.

9. Hannah Kent calls her novel a "dark love letter to Iceland" in her Acknowledgements. What does she mean by this? Did you read the novel in this way?

(Discussion Questions by Publisher)

Book Summary
A brilliant literary debut, inspired by a true story: the final days of a young woman accused of murder in Iceland in 1829.

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.

Riveting and rich with lyricism, BURIAL RITES evokes a dramatic existence in a distant time and place, and asks the question, how can one woman hope to endure when her life depends upon the stories told by others?

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