Review of BURIAL RITES by HANNAH KENT
(based on a review copy)
Iceland. 1829. A woman convicted of a brutal murder. Or two. A family charged with housing her on their isolated farm until her execution. All based on real history, mind you. This isn’t my usual reading taste and yet I suspected I would like it. I suspected right.
Ages has been accused and found guilty of the vicious murder of two men. The family responsible for housing her is understandably upset about the arrangement. They make the most of the situation and put her to work as a servant. Agnes proves a helpful addition to the farm, but her quiet, subdued manner unsettles everyone as they search for hints of the evil murderer from all the gossip.
When a reviewer uses the term “easy read” it can mean different things. I usually use that phrase to refer to the writing style. Some texts challenge you or ask for focused attention while others are…easy reads. In this case, though, when I say BURIAL RITES is an easy read, I mean that I invested easily. I never fell out of the story or struggled reconnecting after breaks between reading sessions. Kent ensures the path from reality to her imaginary world is so clear that you don’t even notice the entrance as you step over the threshold.
My only minor quibble with the book is that sometimes I wanted less suspense. I’ve mentioned before on this blog my frustration with withholding information to keep the reader reading. In my opinion, when a story’s really good you don’t need some juicy “don’t-you-want-to-know” bait hanging in front of you; you want to know what happens next because you love the characters. I know a book’s brilliant when I’m gripped by the most mundane scenes. With BURIAL RITES, I definitely loved the characters enough to keep reading, but I often felt the author pulling me along with the unnecessary promise of lurid details about the murders. Did Agnes actually do it? Was she provoked? Justified? Did the men wrong her? Was it a wrong worthy of murder? Or is she just crazy and violent like everyone says? Keep reading and you’ll find out. Personally, I would have enjoyed the story more if we knew what happened regarding the murders up front and the book focused exclusively on Agnes’ relationship with this family. In fact, this novel exemplifies why I don’t like that suspense “keep reading and I’ll tell you” technique. Once we learn exactly what happened regarding the murders, it can’t live up to all the scandalous speculating I had been doing for hundreds of pages.
That criticism aside, this book also exemplifies masterful pacing. What really makes the novel worthwhile is the relationships Agnes forms with this family, individually and as a unit. From the premise alone I don’t count it as a spoiler to say the family’s opinions about Agnes change over the course of the story. In fact, that’s the point of the story. At the core, this is a familiar fable about how people aren’t always what they seem. The judgments we make of strangers will naturally shift when we actually spend time with the individual.
Another good indicator of a book’s strength is the reader’s emotional connection. Five out of five stars there. The novel repeatedly riled me up on behalf of fictional characters.
Kent delivered an impressive debut and I look forward to reading whatever she writes next.